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.

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

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

Under the Banner of Heaven: Review of First Two Episodes

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

The Future and the Church, Part IV: China

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

The Church Should Not Be Your Project

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

Spiritually Moving “Great Art”

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

The Future and the Church, Part III: Artificial Intelligence

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

Scattered Thoughts on Conference

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

“Royal Families” in the Church and Spiritual Special Sauce

And think not to say within yourselves,We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. –Matthew 3:9 The mythos of the Latter-day Saint royalty that I bought into while growing up in the Utah of Utah went something like this: some families happened to give rise to a lot of functional, financially successful church leaders because their family had some spiritual special sauce that was transmitted from generation to generation, and this special sauce leads to both occupational and spiritual successes as a natural outgrowth of being super spiritual.  I’m not going to blame the Church for this childhood belief since one would be hard pressed to see it taught anywhere, but I do have the sense that this narrative is still in the cultural air even if it is less of a thing now than it was in the past, so it is worth addressing why and how it is false. In his Mormon Hierarchy series Michael Quinn ran the numbers for how many early Church leaders were related to other Church leaders, and it does look like in pioneer-era Utah there were a lot of within-family appointments. If there was an era when dynastic, royal Mormonism was a reality it was then. Furthermore, the boundaries between the political, business, and religious were much more porous, so religious status often accompanied financial and political…

The Future and the Church, Part II: Longer Human Lives

There has always been a need for those persons who could be called finishers. Their ranks are few, their opportunities many, their contributions great. …I pray humbly that each one of us may be a finisher in the race of life and thus qualify for that precious prize: eternal life with our Heavenly Father in the celestial kingdom. I testify that God lives, that this is his work, and ask that each may follow the example of his Son, a true finisher.” -President Monson The history of human lifespan predictions is essentially the history of people theorizing that there’s some biological, natural ceiling for average lifespan, only to have that ceiling shattered. A derivative of a famous visualization in Science shows this history in one pithy image, with the sidebars being different hypothesized ceilings to average human life expectancy.  However, like Moore’s Law predicting the increase of computing power, there’s little in the way of underlying theory driving this observation, and it too has to end at some point unless you think humans have it in them to eventually live to be a million years old. However, we still don’t have a clear picture for where that ceiling is, so for now extrapolating forward past trends that have been uncannily accurate in the past (specifically, we gain 2.5 more years of life for every decade since the 1840s) seem to be our best estimate for now. When we do this we find…

How Old Are Latter-day Saint Bishops?

Last time we used Duke’s National Congregations Study to see how racially representative Latter-day Saint bishops were of the Church. Today we’ll look at how old Latter-day Saint bishops are compared to their peer congregational leaders in other traditions. If we take the two most recent waves (2012 and 2018) of the survey and calculate the means and confidence intervals, it looks like Latter-day Saint bishops are relatively young (with an average age of 51) compared to congregational leaders from other traditions. I’ll admit to being surprised, I knew that Catholic priests tended to be older, but I guess I envisioned Protestant pastors as being more hipster, youth minister types (that’s not a dig, just my false, apparently, image). When we look at the distribution of bishop’s ages it’s “left skewed,” which means that there are some bishops that are much younger than average, but not a lot of bishops that are much older than average, with the “modal,” i.e. most standard bishop being in the 55-59 range. The youngest bishop in this sample is 32, and the oldest is 68. To whoever the 68-year old bishop is: R Code library(foreign) library(dplyr) DCS = read.spss(“LOCATION”, to.data.frame=TRUE) DCS = filter(DCS,(YEAR==2018) | (YEAR==2012)) DCS<-DCS[!is.na(DCS$CLERGAGE),] MeanTable <- DCS %>% group_by(DENOM) %>% summarise( AvgAge = mean(CLERGAGE), sd = sd(CLERGAGE), n = n(), se = sd / sqrt(n) ) write.csv(MeanTable, “LOCATION”) LDS = filter(DCS,DENOM==’Mormon’) table1<-as.data.frame(table(LDS$CLERGAGE))    

The Future and the Church, Part I: Reproductive Technologies

Series that dives into future technologies and trends, and what they might mean for the Church. Rachel’s tomb in Bethlehem, where Jewish women pray for fertility. “Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”-Matthew 2:18 My wife and I would love to have a large family, we would have ten kids if we could, but unfortunately nature doesn’t always cooperate, so we *only* have six. Eye rolls aside, serious infertility can be particularly painful in a highly pronatalist church (there’s a reason infertility issues take up half of Genesis). I, along with many people I am sure, know plenty of Latter-day Saints who wanted nothing more than a traditional big LDS family (and who would have made absolutely incredible mothers and fathers), only to face the stress of the cursed single line on pregnancy test after pregnancy test. Adoption helps obviously, but it is expensive and difficult enough that many still cannot have the number of children they want. While some forms of privilege have been reified in our discourse (e.g. white privilege), others are less visible and talked about, but their relative invisibility doesn’t make them any less painful. In the case of the Church, “fertile privilege” is a very real thing.(As a sidebar, while a common rejoinder to this is that the Church should resolve this by de-emphasizing the reproductive imperative, many of the people making this argument wouldn’t have a problem with…

In Defense of Boundary Maintenance at BYU

BYU’s recent policy changes that appear to be geared towards reinforcing the institution’s Latter-day Saint character are causing consternation in some circles, so I thought now would be a good time to be the bad guy and make a case for why proactive faculty boundary maintenance is needed for an institution like BYU to fulfill its mission. Like a lot of other people, I get the sense that recent changes are bellwethers for future shifts to come, so this will probably be a relevant topic for the next little while. First, a common response is that a religiously sponsored institution can positively reinforce its religious mission while still allowing faculty to challenge the teachings of the sponsoring institution. However, the whole idea of a religious institution of higher education is the belief that a synthesis of the faith’s framework and the traditional academic venture is synergistic in some way. Challenging the faith’s framework itself doesn’t fit into that; using that framework as a lens through which to view academic learning does.  If you don’t hold to the premise that religious institutions are right to perform any boundary maintenance, if you’re okay with an anti-Mormon teaching a religion class as long as they have an MDiv, then this is the part in a “choose your own adventure” book where it tells you to skip to the end, but as a parting note I would just add that there’s plenty of ideological boundary maintenance…

Are Black and Hispanic Men Called as Bishops as Much as White Men?

The other day I realized that Duke University’s National Congregations Study, which includes about 87 randomly sampled LDS wards, has information on the race and ethnicity of the “person who is the head or senior clergy person or religious leader in your congregation,” which I assume in the Latter-day Saint case is the bishop, so I decided to see if we can glean any information about how racially representative leadership is relative to membership. Upfront, statistically this is very much seeing through a glass darkly, but frankly I think it’s the only information that we non-COB employees have on this subject, so it’s worth taking a look. The NCS had four waves: 1998, 2006, 2012, and 2018. The NCS piggy backed off of another survey that is taken almost every year, the General Social Survey, with some individuals asked more detailed questions about their religious congregation. (For the wonks; weights with small cell sizes can get squampous, plus the GSS that the NCS is based on is a relatively self-weighted survey already, so for my purposes here I’m not going to worry about the weights). If we simply look at the racial/ethnic composition of Latter-day Saint bishops by year we have the following table. (For some reason WordPress is cutting off the image; apologies.) As you can see, we only have 23 wards/branches in 2018, 19 in 2012, 35 in 2006, and 9 in 1998. However, this isn’t nothing. Obviously, the vast majority…

Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part IX, Free Will

Free will is one of those issues where you have to think deep and hard about your definitions. Many philosophers will subscribe to one definition, but not another, so sometimes the whole debate on whether we have “free will” revolves around semantics that you can’t do justice to in a single post, so I won’t try. However, it is fairly clear that Latter-day Saint theology not only makes space for (at least some version of) free will (except we refer to it as “agency” in our vernacular), but puts it at the cornerstone of our teleology.  Scientifically, the most famous experiment that addresses the concept of free will is the so-called Libet experiment. While there’s some dispute, my understanding is that there is a soft consensus that, when you ask someone to make a random decision such as moving a finger, scientists can detect a buildup of brain signals that predicts whether they will “choose” to move the finger moments before they are consciously aware of deciding to move it, suggesting that what we think we are choosing is actually the result of non-conscious brain mechanics.    Assuming that the technical aspects of the experiment are sound, there are still a lot of steps before we get to a “it’s all brain mechanics” conclusion (for example, the experiment begs the question of whether free will can operate subconsciously). Predicting responses from brain patterns is an exciting area of cutting edge research,…

Glory to Ukraine

“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love have always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it–always.” Mahatma Gandhi Glory to Ukraine.

Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part VIII, Time and God

When I was a Wikipedia editor years ago the Joseph Smith page stated that “[Smith] began teaching that God was…embodied within time and space,” and they cited Busman’s statement to that effect. I removed the “embodied in time” and explained that this is arguable, citing Alma’s statement that “time only is measured unto men.” (As I was writing this I re-checked the page, and it’s back up, oh well).   So is God in and beholden to the flow of time? Church historians and theologians undoubtedly have a more informed take on this than I, but in terms of the science I’m more comfortable with an Augustinian “no.”  Since Einstein discovered that “now” is relative, saying that God dwells in time begs the question of which time, since it doesn’t do us any good to simply say that “now” for God is “now” for us, and that God remembers the past and is aware of, but is not experiencing, the future. (Although the Pearl of Great Price speaks of Kolob as reckoning “God’s time,” I read this as talking about God’s unit of time measurement more than the “now” that God is operating in, although I might be wrong). Joseph Smith’s quote that “the past, present, and future, were, and are with [God] one eternal now” basically strikes the same note as Einstein’s statement that “the distinction made between past, present, and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion.” …

On “Good Anger”

A pattern I’ve noticed in political and sometimes religious discourse lately is the concept of “good anger.” This isn’t the calm and measured, but firm response of Christ before the Romans or at the temple, but a deep antipathy with bite to it. The acidity of this anger is not considered a weakness, but is intentional; a feature, not a bug, justified because of the injustice that motivates the anger.  My interest here is with the justification for the hate. In the same sense that there is a major difference between weaknesses of the flesh and open rebellion against God, the justification of social or political righteous anger is essentially an open revolt against the teachings of the Savior, even if it’s not seen as such. On the issue of forgiveness, the Savior is clear and direct. All people, everywhere, in any circumstance. It’s hard enough for those of us living in fairly comfortable circumstances to pull this off, but a few moments of pondering on just how horrible humans can be to each other makes one realize just how radical this command is.  Lawrence Bittaker and Roy Norris committed what are considered some of the most horrendous murders in US history. I have no desire to go into detail, but the tapes they made of their tortures are used by the FBI to habituate recruits to violence, and by all accounts the perpetrators never showed real remorse for their crimes. I…

Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part VII: Fine Tuning

The more I examine the universe and the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense must have known we were coming.-Freeman Dyson As noted in a previous post, fine tuning is a problem that has received mainstream acceptability within the scientific community. To summarize, for complex matter like stars and carbon to exist (which, by extension, is required for us to exist), matter needs to have characteristics that are just right. If the difference between the masses of this and that particle or the strength of this and that force were slightly different the universe as we know it would not exist. I won’t go into the details here, but the Templeton Foundation funded a reader-friendly writeup on the issue.  We appear to have not only hit the jackpot, but to have hit about a half dozen jackpots simultaneously. One explanation for this is the anthropic principle, which simply states that had we not hit all those jackpots we simply wouldn’t be around to talk about it. I kind of find this an unsatisfying just-so story, and I get the sense that most physicists do too.  Ultimately, the remaining, not-mutually-exclusive options are either some kind of God calibrating the characteristics of the universe (twisting the knobs, as Dawkins puts it), or a multiverse, where there are a vast number of dead, lifeless universes, with an occasional universe with just the right characteristics…

Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part VI: The End of the Universe and Getting Out of Bed in the Morning

There are a variety of “end of the universe” scenarios that physicists currently see as most likely:  Heat Death Because of a mysterious energy in the universe (aptly named “dark energy”), the universe’s expansion is speeding up. As things expand they cool down, so the heat contained in the universe will gradually dissipate until there is no light and no heat, just an immense void of cold darkness. This is the current leader for “most likely way the universe will end.”  The Big Rip Dark energy accelerates with time, eventually causing space itself to grow so much that objects grow very distant from each other. Professor Katie Mack’s description in her excellent book The End of Everything (Astrophysically Speaking), describes the last few months of the universe’s existence in this scenario:  From this point, the destruction picks up its pace. We begin to find that the orbits of the planets are not what they should be, but are instead slowly spiraling outward. Just months before the end, after we’ve lost the outer planets to the great and glowing blackness, the Earth drifts away from the Sun, and the Moon from the Earth. We too enter the darkness, alone. Eventually the expansion of space itself explodes the planet and then all atoms inside of it get ripped apart.   Vacuum Decay Without getting too technical, the energy built into the vacuum of space switches in such a way that a wave of…

“Bishop Roulette” vs “One Size Fits All”

“Leadership roulette” (or “bishop roulette”) is a common term thrown around when there is some good or bad outcome that depends on the contingencies of who happens to be your local leader. This particular complaint is often aimed at some perceived authority figure in a bubble at Church Headquarters that is supposedly detached from the complexities of lived experiences of the Saints. Now, “leadership roulette” is real, and I don’t mean to dismiss its occasional relevance, but there are also a lot of complaints about the “one size fits all” solutions, when the two are essentially tradeoffs of one another. Tying a bishop’s hands essentially involves imposing mandates from above, while allowing bishops to use their judgment essentially allows for variation from case to case. God can think multiple things at once in a perfectly consistent way, so He can square that circle, but for us mortals we are required to essentially pick our poison here.  This isn’t a new idea. One of the founding fathers of sociology, Max Weber, coined the term “the iron cage of bureaucracy”  to describe the routinization of roles and decisions that is inevitable in a legal/technical society. To some extent the benefits of bureaucracies outweigh the costs. We like the rules being codified and written down so that they protect us from arbitrary judgment. Also, as institutions become large enough it simply becomes impossible for the leaders to manage every detail, so they need to rely…

Why I am Not An Intellectual

The American philosopher Richard Rorty recollected that when he was a teenager he dreamed of being able to read all the great works in his local library and arrive at some grand synthesis of truth from all the wisdom contained therein (for all truth to be circumscribed into one great whole, as it were). and later in his career he (arguably) became something of an apostate from philosophy as he increasingly challenged its ability to do what it claimed to be able to do.   At the risk of being presumptuous, as an undergraduate I fell in love with Rorty in large part because my own journey started tracking his. The big difference, of course, is that as an orthodox Latter-day Saint I do believe in what he would call the “writing in the sky” of absolute truth, but like him I believed that the wisdom of the ages had something to contribute to this grand understanding of capital T Truth, but also like him I later realized that it actually doesn’t do that as much as it claims to. I do intellectual things. I read a lot, I go to a local book club, I enjoy discussions, but as an identity and a structure for life intellectualism is pretty hollow. During my halcyon undergraduate days my educational philosophy was summed up in the Brigham Young quote (which I still love) “if an Elder shall give us a lecture upon astronomy,…

Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part V: Population Genetics

Population genetics is an exciting, cutting edge area of research. In the past we had a fairly simplistic picture of our deep history, with humans migrating out of Africa and then sequentially expanding from continent to continent. However, occasional findings of very early human remains, combined with the genetics revolution, paints a completely different picture of turbulent demographic back-and-forths with extinctions, conquests, deportations, and uprooted wanderings. Since writing came on the scene relatively late, most (chronologically speaking) of our history as a species is written down not on paper, but literally in our blood, whether it’s the history of mass sexual enslavement of Irish women by Viking raiders  or the remote San people of South Africa being cut off from the rest of humanity for 100,000 years, these stories of our fathers and mothers are still recorded in our genes.  So what does this have to do with the gospel?  The most obvious issue is the Book of Mormon genetics question. In terms of apologetics, I feel like this issue is a draw; if you want it to be an issue it’s an issue, if you don’t want it to be an issue it’s not an issue.  The first classical Book of Mormon genetics discussion revolved around mitochondrial DNA. This is a kind of DNA that everybody inherits from their mother. Consequently, by measuring how often DNA mutates we can come up with a clock for how related you are…

The Church’s Position on Sexuality

I’ve noticed a not-insignificant number of members, both orthodox and heterodox, assume that the Church’s position on human sexuality is a “just because the prophet said so” issue, and aren’t aware of any well thought out defenses of the Church’s (or conservative religion’s in general) position written by non-church leaders, so I’ve gone ahead and thrown together a collection of pieces that speak to the subject that I’m posting here.  I’m intending for these sources to speak primarily to theological issues; I recognize that legal same-sex marriage is a whole other can of worms, and that the political arguments vis-a-vis same-sex marriage are related, albeit ultimately distinct. from the theological arguments surrounding same-sex sealings. However, since a lot of treatments of the subject touch on issues germane to both there is some political mixed in the batch too, but that’s not the primary intent.  A note on the comments: yes, I’m aware that for many people literally any argument defending the Church’s position is arbitrary and capricious. I don’t have a ton of time to puppy guard the comments, so while I’ll keep them open I’m not going to be a super active presence there.    Cassler, Valerie H. “Plato’s Son, Augustine’s Heir: ‘A Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology’?” SquareTwo 5(2): 2012.  https://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCasslerPlatosSon.html   Dyer, W. Justin. “Shifting Views on the Male-Female Relationship: Same-Sex Marriage and Other Social Consequences.” Religious Educator: Perspectives on the Restored Gospel 18, no. 2 (2017): 31-51. https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1791&context=re …

Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part IV: Quantum Mechanics

Quantum mechanics makes absolutely no sense. Basically, small particles act differently depending on whether they are being watched, either by a conscious human being or a detector machine (even if the detector is turned on after it has acted). I’m not going to rehash how we know, but the more details you get the more mind blowing it is (Brian Greene’s book The Elegant Universe has the best easy read description of said details). More and more refined experiments continue to close possible loopholes, so it looks like the crazy is true (despite, among other people, Albert Einstein spending the last half of his life trying to prove it false).  If you said that particles behave this way back before we had evidence for it people would have thought you were nuts which, a priori, should make us more humble about the possibilities in the universe. One of the less sophisticated “atheist bro” arguments points out that our every day life works according to some principle, and some religious belief violates that principle (“how can Mary get pregnant as a virgin? Check mate!”), when on a meta level quantum mechanics teaches us that our everyday operating principles are most certainly not accurate guides for peeling back layers of reality. If quantum mechanics reveals a counterintuitive reality we can measure, how much more counterintive can layers of reality be that we can’t measure? (And yes, I know that quantum mechanics is a…

Latter-day Saints for Life

My family and I recently participated in the March for Life, the big annual pro-life march in DC, so I’ve been thinking about a variety of things related to that  (in no particular order). To what extent should you use your religious affiliation as an adjective for your political identity (or vice-versa)? On the left there are certainly examples of this (Mormons for Marriage, MWEG, etc.), but what are we trying to say when you do this? My wife didn’t want to create the “Latter-day Saints for Life” poster because she would have marched whether she was religious or not (there is a “Secular Pro-Life” group that has a presence every year at the march; a non-religious version of me, of course, would have probably spent that weekend eating pizza and playing video games). I suspect there are both religious-community and political-community facing reasons for combining the two. We want both of those communities to know that we can be X and a Latter-day Saint. For some, I suspect that there is also a desire to draw attention to a particular strand of Latter-day Saint thought that comports with that political/social position.  The Hari Krishna temple in Springville, Utah is a fascinating example of this. They do not proselytize about becoming Krishna (not that I would find it unwelcome if they did), but they do have materials about how good Latter-day Saints should refrain from eating meat (and they’ve certainly…

My Top Religious Themed Movies, Ranked

A well done religious-themed movie can be a powerful spiritual experience. Unfortunately, the movie industry generally either shies away from religious themes (unless to deride them), or they fit in the Christian cinema niche that produces simple starches for the masses. It is hard to find a religious-themed movie that is authentically spiritually touching and has good production value, that’s not sappy but also not cynical. Because of their rarity I’m on a lifelong hunt. I’ve scrounged foreign, domestic, old, and new, and these are the fruits of my labors (in order, so 1= my favorite). If I’ve missed some, do let me know. They are rank ordered with favorite=1. 1. Son of Saul  Academy award-winner for best foreign film in 2015. A Jewish concentration camp prisoner forced to help dispose of gas chamber bodies comes across the corpse of his son and tries to find a rabbi to say Kaddish. The cinematography is experimental (the camera focuses on his face the whole time), which creepingly makes the graphic horrors of the camp happening at the edges seem like a sideshow. Definitely not for kids, but a very powerful depiction of earnest, concrete faith.  2. A Hidden Life Terrence Malik is controversial (aesthetically, not socially/politically), but I like his work. A Hidden Life is the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a (now beautified) Austrian Catholic living in the Alps who was executed for refusing to fight for the Nazis. The cinematography, music,…

Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part III: The Creation of Life

Like most Latter-day Saints, my testimony of the Church is based more on the numinous than the intellectual. However, I still remember the moment when, ruminating on my AP biology class while taking a break during my summer lifeguarding job, I decided that there is no way life could have just spontaneously happened, and that I’d be a believer in something out there even if my Latter-day Saint faith cratered.  As I type that last sentence I can hear the shrieking and eye scratching from the Dawkins disciples in the back of my head. Because of the catastrophic political and social alliance between people who are skeptical that chance could have led to the first cell and people who want to put disclaimers on biology textbooks teaching evolution, there is more of a visceral reaction to “design” among biologists than there is to “fine tuning” among physicists. (Indeed, before he passed away the great physicist Steven Weinberg admitted that the only options left for explaining fine tuning was God or a multiverse). And that makes sense, the “intelligent design” people are professional adversaries of the evolutionary biology and biology education discipline in ways that the fine tuners just aren’t for professional physicists.  So to just be clear, I don’t think intelligent design should be taught in schools. If anything my “design” based realization that afternoon at the Riverside Country Club probably would have been muddied had it been immediately framed…

Why Latter-day Saints (Or Anyone Else) Should Not Feel Bad about Having Kids on Government Assistance

When I was in graduate school with a young family my wife and I went on government assistance. We didn’t have a car so I had to fill our stroller up with groceries every third day. Of course, one particularly cold winter our stroller got a flat and we couldn’t fix it, so I had to go out in face-numbing West Philadelphia weather and run multiple shopping laps back and forth with a backpack so that I could make it back in time for class. Those were tough times (somewhat obviated when we had our rent paid one month by an anonymous donor who left the message “love one another”). Even though we were in a low income area of West Philadelphia, and a lot of people were on government assistance, we still got the awkward stares when the cashier tried to figure out our WIC checks while the line stacked up behind us. (Thankfully I still had some of the “ignore the awkward stares” calluses left over from my mission.) For us the decision to have children was not really affected by whether or not they would require government assistance, but we ran into our fair share of people who were torn over the dilemma of whether to have children that they could not afford. In our particular circles, the people who had an issue with having kids on government assistance fell into two groups: the first were “bro”…

What Happens If All the Apostles Pass Away?

Many countries have continuity of government plans for what to do if the leadership suddenly dies in some sort of a catastrophe. The United States famously has a “designated survivor” that is in a secure location during the State of the Union so that somebody in the line of succession can be preserved if the Capitol building is destroyed; one of the of the most interesting manifestations of this planning is the fact that each of the four UK nuclear missile submarines has a handwritten letter from the Prime Minister in a safe that has instructions for what to do with their nuclear missiles in case the UK government is destroyed. The hierarchy of the Church is structured around the doctrine that the top fifteen men in the Church have the same office as Christ’s original apostles, and that they are ordained to that position by other apostles, eventually stretching back to Jesus Christ through the laying on of hands. But what would happen if all fifteen pass away at the same time?  The lack of a clear, legal successor might lead to a post-Joseph Smith martyrdom situation, with various splinter groups and claimants. Institutionally it seems the most likely scenario would be that the Presidents of the 70s would become the new governing body of the Church (assuming they were not affected by the catastrophe). D&C 107:26 could be interpreted as meaning that, just as the Quorum of the…

Big Science Questions and the Gospel, Part II: Consciousness and the Soul

Any reasonably intelligent person can understand the principles involved in the search for extraterrestrial life issue that I addressed in my last science post. However, the issue of consciousness is fundamentally mind-wracking and forces us to question some of our basic intuitions. It can get crazy; with some philosophers going so far as to claim that consciousness itself is an illusion, and others claiming that consciousness is almost everything. Consequently, it’s a little foolhardy to do the issue and its relevance to the gospel justice in one post, but I will try.  The standard position of philosophers and neuroscientists is that consciousness arises from chemistry in the brain. However, a substantial minority hold that things we associate with consciousness such as internal experience and feeling fundamentally cannot arise from atoms and molecules interacting with each other. While our computers are becoming more human-like in terms of processing and even in terms of intuition with neural networks and other AI algorithms, they would argue that our computers are not getting any closer to “feeling” anything or self-awareness.   One of the most famous thought experiments making this point is called “Mary’s Room.” Mary is a neuroscientist who has lived in a black and white room for her whole life, during which she has spent all her time studying the technical characteristics of the color red. Despite her lifetime of learning, once the door is open and she sees red for the first…