Category: News and Politics

Politics – Current Events – Media

IX. Joseph the Seer

How did Joseph Smith and his associates create a translation that shows knowledge of a grammar that presumes the existence of the translation? Given what we know of the documents and the timeline for the translation of the Book of Abraham, the only way to solve the chicken-and-egg problem is this:

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. …

Online Christmas concerts: Salt Lake brings inclusiveness and simplicity. Europe does not.

Besides the large public Christmas concerts at Temple Square, the Church also offers a less spectacular, pre-recorded one-hour Christmas concert for online view, worldwide. For 2022 the Church produced “The Promise of Christmas”. Bravo! I don’t know if they employ a Diversity Consultant, but they certainly hit the mark. Opening: immediate focus on two singing non-Caucasian girls, next broadening to the full One Voice Children’s Choir. The kids all casually dressed, naturally moving on stage. Black presenter Stephen Jones, in his warm, easygoing style, sets the tone for an intimate musical journey with church members from around the world. The program features genuine singing from Brazil, the Philippines, South Africa, and from a string of joyful groups in the Africa West Area, flashing a modern Africa in urban settings, future-oriented, and thus avoiding the folklorization of aboriginal villages. Heart-warming are the cozy strings of the “Simply Three”, accompanied by a black pianist. A few other groups bring simple, pleasant music for all audiences. All casually dressed: all should feel included. Personally, I would have liked to see more contributions from other countries instead of the noisy Utah Pipe Band, the bubbly BYU Folk Dancers, or the impeccable BYU Vocal Point, but others certainly enjoy those US contributions. At the center of this Salt Lake-based concert is the adorable telling of the nativity story, with very simple, quietly animated drawings in black and white—suitable for all cultures and age groups. No…

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…

Firing faculty: some educated guesses

Like most media outlets, Inside Higher Ed isn’t well equipped to report stories about BYU-Idaho – it doesn’t entirely understand that BYU and BYU-Idaho are two different schools, for example. But if I had to read between the lines and make an educated guess, this is what I think is happening.

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…

Resources to Get More out of Reading the Gospels

We’ll spend the first six months of 2023 studying the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) for Come, Follow Me. For the last couple of years, every day I’ve read at least a chapter of the “five gospels” (the four above + Christ’s appearance in the Americas recorded in 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon). Because that’s taken me through the Gospels several times, I’ve used several resources to enhance my understanding and to keep my reading fresh. I’ll share a few resources that have been useful to me, and I’d love to learn about your favorite resources in the comments!   Read or listen to a new translation. Latter-day saint biblical scholar Ben Spackman writes that “the absolute best and easiest thing you can do to increase the quality and frequency of your Bible study is to replace/supplement your [King James Version] with a different translation.” I find that reading different translations gives me new perspective on familiar verses. The leaders of the Church study and quote different translations. There are many, many Bible translations out there. One that I’ve seen recommended is the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). You can find many of them at websites like Bible Gateway or using this Bible app. (I also use the latter app to listen to different translations.)  If you like country music singer Johnny Cash, you can listen to him reading the Gospels aloud (here are YouTube playlists for…

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%).…

If I Didn’t Believe, Part II: God, Jesus, and Other Religions

  God: I feel like the belief in God is one of those almost congenital predispositions; you either believe or you don’t. Empirically, based on fine tuning and the complexity of the origin of life, I would lean towards there being an organizational force, even in the absence of a belief in the Church.  Additionally, my sense that 1) moral truth, goodness, and other abstract concepts are real, and 2) you can’t get to an “ought” from an “is,” leans me towards the idea that metaphysics is built into the universe, that there is “writing in the sky,” as the philosopher Richard Rorty puts it, something beyond the raw math and matter. And yes, I know that each of those two premises is highly arguable among philosophers. However, the counter arguments seem like a desperate attempt to wrest meaning from the void, because we can’t live on math and matter alone, but neither can some people explicitly recognize the validity of anything outside the laboratory or logic formula. Even people who claim to only believe in math and matter almost always have some “magic morality” embedded in their outlook whether they recognize it or not. Jesus: I feel that the Gospels have a power that is unique among other religious texts. However, a lot of the power comes from the subtle but powerful and explicit divine aspect of the Savior portrayed in the gospels. Frankly, the social teachings in the…

If I Didn’t Believe, Part I: The Joseph Smith Trilemma, the Book of Mormon Translation, and the Witnesses

Like a lot of people who have gone through faith crises, I’ve spent some time thinking through the alternative to belief in the Church’s truth claims. If we assume that the Church isn’t what it says it is, what is the best explanation for the Church and its related claims that make sense of the data? At the outset I should note that I am indeed a believer, and that this picture was developed from faith crises of the past and isn’t reflective of anything I’m currently going through.  Joseph Smith Trilemma C.S. Lewis famously stated that the only logical options for Christ was that he was divine, evil, or insane, thus logically negating the option of the not divine, albeit good, wise teacher that is a favorite among a certain class of intellectual Christian. I’m not going to argue for or against Lewis’ trilemma here, but rather use it as a framework to approach Joseph Smith.  On the one hand, the Book of Mormon seems to logically close off the possibility of deluded-but-sincere. To create a complex backstory across multiple years, arrange for witnesses, dictate the manuscript, and arrange for its publication would require a lot of concerted intentionality. If the Church was based solely on a kind of beatific vision a la the first vision, I would definitely see this as a more plausible scenario, but the Book of Mormon seems to mitigate against the sincerity thesis.  On the…

Latter-day Saint Book Report on “Sex Cult Nun: Breaking Away from the Children of God, a Wild, Radical Religious Cult.”

One of the accusations you occasionally get from the far corners of the internet is that the early Church was a “sex cult” because of Nauvoo-era polygamy. That accusation, of course, begs the question of what a sex cult is. While I categorically don’t like to use the word “cult,” (for, among other reasons, implying that small religions have issues that big religions don’t have), if you were to identify a group as an archetypal “sex cult,” it would be the Children of God Movement in the second half of the 20th century. This book was written by a grandchild of the founder about her experiences in the group up until she left as a young adult; it acts as both a memoir and a history in itself about the movement.  To summarize, the Children of God synthesized traditional Christian teachings with what could be described as sex worship and communal living. Among other practices, people were encouraged to imagine the “love of Christ” as a sex act, female proselytizers used casual sex to attract “investigators,” religious materials were sexually explicit in nature, and in its later stages there were accusations of adult-child sexual contact. (Also, fun fact, the actor Joaquin Phoenix was raised in the group). So, to relate this to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. If I had to guess, I’d imagine that Joseph Smith polygamy is probably the top faith crisis issue in the…

The Greatest Apostasy Since Kirtland? Following a Cohort of Members Across Time

For some years there have been rumors of a large-scale apostasy happening in the Church. These rumors are hard to test without insider information because most surveys have such small samples of Church members it’s really a case of peering through the glass darkly.  I’ve been on record suggesting that in the long run the Church is treading water in terms of out-flows and in-flows (conversions versus people leaving). However, I also recognized that just comparing the number of ex-members to the members of converts at a point in time can obscure some more recent trends.  I recently ran across the fact that the Cooperative Election Study has a sample of 136 members that they followed from 2010 to 2014. While this is a small sample size, it’s one of the very few cases where we can follow a cohort of members measured by a third party to see how many are leaving or joining. (For our small-N, high level purposes here I’m ignoring weights).    If you follow this group across 2012 and 2014, we find that: Between 2010 and 2014, 21 stopped identifying as members by 2014 (15%). Of the 11 people who left in 2012, two returned to the Church by 2014 (so an 82% ex-Mormon, two-year retention rate).     Between 2010 and 2012, four people joined the Church, but only two continued to identify as such in 2014 (so a 50% two-year, convert retention rate).  In total, 10 converts…