Category: News and Politics

Politics – Current Events – Media

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…

Nepotism in High Church Offices

Nepotism is the most natural of vices and needs to constantly be proactively guarded against, or else it will almost certainly creep into any large institution. In the early Church there just weren’t a lot of options to choose from because it was so small, but as the Church becomes larger and more diverse it becomes increasingly unlikely that the best suited person for a high status calling happens to be the close relative of somebody else in a high status calling. (As an aside, one silver lining to having apostles with children who are very publicly not in the Church is that it helps ameliorate the otherization of people who aren’t in blue blood families). In today’s Church, I suspect that family connections, when they do happen, are less a matter of somebody trying to build a dynasty and more a matter of people appointing people that they know, but in these cases stronger efforts to expand the circle of seriously considered candidates might be helpful.  Michael Quinn goes through the history of Church within-family promotions in the early Church in fine-grained detail (and some of the negative consequences), so we won’t rehash that here, but there is some residue of this today.  President Monson’s daughter was in the Young Women’s General Presidency. President Nelson’s son-in-law is a General Authority 70 (I have heard this second hand and haven’t confirmed, feel free to correct).  Elder Holland’s son was appointed…

Latter-day Saints and Extraterrestrials

I was asked to present a bit on the Latter-day Saint perspective on extraterrestrials for an “exotheology” reading group I’m a part of that’s mostly composed of British academics. The following are my thoughts I put together for the lecture.   I was asked to present because the Latter-day Saint (AKA Mormon) tradition has had a long history of believing in multiple planets and non-earth life.  I’m talking to an educated audience I assume most people know the basics but just in case I’ll go over them briefly. Mormonism, or more properly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint, is a restorationist movement that believes that the authority for the primitive Christian Church was lost sometime after the Apostles died out in what it terms “the Great Apostasy” and was restored through divine and angelic messengers through Joseph Smith, a day laborer in Northern New York in the early 19th century. From the earliest congregation, which was basically Joseph Smith’s and a few other families in New York, it kept growing while getting driven West with the expanding frontier, and now it is headquartered in Utah with about 17 million members.  There’s obviously a lot more but that’s sort of the elevator synopsis.  To first set the stage a bit at a meta level: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is similar to Catholicism in that there is a scriptural canon, but there’s also an authoritative priesthood…

You’re Probably Not as Edgy as You Think

  “Subculture deviance” is a theoretical perspective in the sociology of deviance that, in response to the question of why people deviate from societal norms, posits that people simply adhere to the norms of a subculture that is at variance with the broader culture. In other words, people who think they’re being radical, edgy freethinkers are often actually just following another crowd that has its own set of norms and values.  As somebody who grew up in the 1990s Utah sacred canopy I’ve seen this play out many times in the Latter-day Saint context. Person is a super strict Latter-day Saint, goes to graduate school or otherwise immerses themselves in some other environment whose norms and values are at tension with those in the Mormon belt, they convert and are still vehement warriors for the truth, but in a different direction.  For the purpose of this post I’m not questioning their conversion: they may be right, but what they aren’t is edgy, unique, or independent thinking, and in certain subcultures within Mormondom the iconoclast label comes part and parcel with its identity. However, true iconoclasm, where you think everybody but you is going crazy, is incredibly uncomfortable; it’s not an experience people usually revel in. Years ago I read the letters of Thomas More as he was traveling down the pathway that eventually led to his execution, and I was struck at how non-martyrish it felt. If there was a way…

General Conference as a “Peaceable Thing of the Kingdom”

The Listener, by James Christensen I’ve been as guilty as anyone of, subconsciously and in the back of my mind, looking forward to General Conference more for the big announcements or controversy than the spiritual nourishment. Reading about the controversy and ensuing outrage (and counter-outrage) in particular are kind of an emotional crack cocaine for people like me. There’s a very momentary feeling of exhilaration, but it gives you a gross feeling inside that you don’t need a lot of discernment to know is not of God. If you are listening to General Conference in the spirit in which it was intended, and do plan to make social media commentary part of your experience, some people have put together Twitter lists of less polemical commentators. And if listening to General Conference isn’t your thing, I wish you a spiritually capacious weekend hiking, listening to music, meditating, or whatever else you do to commune with deity.    

General Conference and Our Shrinking Attention Spans

As the father of a lot of small, messy children, I easily listen to two hours of podcasts a day while cleaning (how my parents’ generation cleaned before podcasts I have no idea). The other day a movie producer on a podcast made a comment about how, in the days before streaming, television producers would look at what other shows were running during their same spot to know who they were competing against, whereas now movie and television producers are faced with the fact that whatever they make is competing against everything that was ever made.   For the most part, I think this development is good. I think it has democratized our attention spans; no longer are we beholden to the views of a few middle aged guys on the large news networks, and the intense competition has forced the entertainment industry to sharpen their craft (I won’t launch into the whole argument about whether things were better back in the day, suffice it to say that for me personally a surprising number of the classic films of yesteryear seem like B-grade Netflix releases now; their appeal is more from nostalgia than objectively high production quality).  While it is common to bemoan what Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat have done to our attention spans (the irony of writing this on the now aged medium of a blog is not lost on me), the narrowing of our attention spans has forced content…

Scams in Zion, Part II: MLMs and Utah Socio-Religious Elites

It’s sort of an open secret that Utah has a pyramid scheme multilevel marketing problem. MLMs prey on financially vulnerable people and get them to weaken their personal connections–the most important thing in life and during a time when such precious connections are in increasingly short supply–for very little money, and some MLMs layer dubious, snake-oil type medical claims on top of their immoral distribution approach. It’s nauseating on so many levels.  While I have no reason to doubt the conventional wisdom of Utah having a lot of MLMs, I decided to back-of-the-envelope quantify it. We don’t have access to the internal “independent distributor” numbers, but we can look at how many of the large MLMs are based out of Utah. I looked at the 75 MLMs listed in Wikipedia (I know, I know, but for stuff like this Wikipedia is usually pretty good, and I figured that being listed in Wikipedia was a basic threshold for size and importance). Of the 75 listed, 12 of them are from Utah or are clearly LDS connected (e.g. LuLaRoe), or 16%. Given that Utah and Latter-day Saints are both about 1% of the US population each (with a lot of overlap, obviously), we are very overrepresented.   So yes, we have a problem. Also, I’m aware, as I’ve said many times, that Utah does not equal the Church, but it’s harder to argue against some underlying connection with Utah-Church culture when a lot…

Scams in Zion, Part I: Do Latter-day Saints Tend to Be Gullible Fraud Victims?

I just finished reading the Bernard Madoff biography Wizard of Lies that, in part, details how Madoff ingratiated himself with and defrauded a significant chunk of the East Coast Jewish community. Of course that sparked my thinking about parallels in our own religious community, as it has become sort of a truism that Latter-day Saints are particularly susceptible to fraud. Consequently, I decided to dive into the numbers. I couldn’t find anything empirically testing whether high Latter-day Saint areas tend to be more fraudulent, so I did my own analysis. The 2010 American Religious Census has an indicator for number of Latter-day Saints for thousand in a county, and the Uniform Crime Reporting System shows the number of frauds committed in each county in the year 2010.  I merged the two datasets by their fips code, generated a “fraud per thousand” measure using the county population numbers in the UCRS, looked at whether Latter-day Saints per thousand is associated with frauds committed per thousand, and found that more Latter-day Saints= fewer frauds. (As always, my code is on my github).  The graph is below (sorry I didn’t take time to make it pretty; I’ve already spent too much family time on this).  For the wonks, the correlation was -.07, so it’s not much, but it was statistically significant (I’d log the values in the graph, but for our purposes here I’m trying to keep things simple). From a regression approach,…