The Social Science of Mormonism Q&A, Part I

This post is brought to BCC by Mike McBride is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of California, Irvine.

When the folks at BCC offered me the chance to do a blog post, the idea of a Q&A panel on the social science of Mormonism sounded like a great topic. Though the social scientific studies on Mormonism are not as large in number or as well known among the LDS population as are the historical studies of Mormonism, there are many such studies. There is even a dedicated professional association–the Mormon Social Science Association (MSSA).

In this two-post series, I asked four MSSA members a series of questions about the social scientific research on Mormonism. Our four panelists are, in alphabetical order: Ryan Cragun (RC), Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Tampa; Armand Mauss (AM), Professor Emeritus, Department of Sociology, Washington State University; Michael Nielson (MN), Professor, Department of Psychology, Georgia Southern University; and Rick Phillips (RP), Associate Professor, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of North Florida.

To conserve space, I include two respondents’ answers per question. We will post a pdf of the complete transcripts when Part II goes up.

Also, Armand and Rick have also agreed to participate in the online discussion on the blog, and Ryan may pop in, too, so please look out for them in the comments.

1. Why does the social scientific research on Mormonism receive much less attention from lay members of the LDS Church than the historical research on Mormonism?

AM: Before turning to the specific question, I think it might be important to articulate my definition of “social scientific work,” especially as contrasted with work in history or in the various fields of scholarship usually called “the humanities.” In general, I would define social scientific studies as those which seek to explain the behavior of people in groups and/or in communities, guided by hypotheses derived from general theories of behavior, and based upon systematic, empirical data. Specifically, the conventional disciplines of psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics would be included in most definitions of the “social sciences.” A work in history can be social-scientific to the extent that it attempts to apply a consistent theoretical framework to its analysis and depends upon systematic data for its conclusions.

One reason is that history and doctrine (“truth”) have always been intertwined for Mormons. Their most fundamental truth claims are, after all, historical – about miraculous events that really happened historically. Devout Mormons therefore look to history or historical research to vindicate their truth claims. Dissident or ex-Mormons look to historical research to vindicate their rejection of those truth claims, so historical research has a special interest across the spectrum. Another reason is that social science research on Mormons appears almost entirely in academic journals not readily accessible to lay members. Still another reason is that studies of the past seem “safer” to most lay members than do studies of the present, and the “more past,” the safer they are. Thus a lot more research has been published on 19th-century Mormons than on the 20th-century. Contemporary studies, whether social-scientific or otherwise, frequently challenge the public image that the Church and the Saints prefer, so as lay members encounter the work of social scientists they are prepared to be suspicious, and they always seem quite relieved when they learn that the findings of social science tend to “support the Church.”

MN: I’d suggest that the typical person has much more familiarity with scholarly historical studies than with comparable research in sociology, anthropology or psychology. I also suspect that history is considered a more natural fit with LDS Churchgoers, who are likely to be familiar with church history from LDS Institute or BYU courses. This lends legitimacy to the study of history to a degree beyond that obtained in social sciences. It also may play into the perception that social scientific assumptions – like those in the biological or physical sciences – are contrary to the assumptions of religion. I’m not saying that this is necessarily the case; getting beyond that belief is possible, but requires one to consider issues beyond the regular church curriculum, and the typical LDS Churchgoer has little reason to invest the time and effort to do so.

2. How hard is it to publish social scientific work on Mormonism in professional (i.e., non-Mormon) journals or academic presses?

RP: There are several venues in the sociology of religion that are amenable to papers on Mormonism, provided the work makes an empirical or theoretical contribution that can benefit a more general audience. Because I keep this caveat in mind when I begin to write, I have been able to publish in these journals with few problems. That said, it would be nice to have an outlet where social scientists studying Mormonism could write for one another without having to worry about whether the argument is too esoteric, or without having to constantly define terms for people unfamiliar with Latter-day Saint theology and polity. Every year at the MSSA business meeting we toss around the idea of a journal, but we always conclude that the task is too daunting. I think there may be a constituency for a journal that publishes social science research on Mormonism, but getting it off the ground would be tough. As some of you may already know, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion—the flagship journal for research in the social science of religion—is now housed and edited at BYU. Whether or not this increases the number of papers on Mormonism published in the journal, it says a lot about the how the secular academy perceives the status and credibility of the work on religion (a lot of it Mormon focused) coming from various social science departments at BYU.

MN: In my area of research, I have not noticed a bias against research on Mormonism. The work I have done on Mormons has been published, and when I have reviewed Mormon-related manuscripts submitted to journals the better work has been published eventually. (Virtually all work gets revised in the publication process.) To the extent that there is a bias, it is one that questions the role of religion in general, and not Mormonism specifically.

3. What challenges do social scientists face when studying Mormonism, and how do they differ from the challenges faced by others who research Mormonism?

RP: One of the most significant challenges I face in my work is a dearth of high quality data. The church is now large enough that one can pull Latter-day Saints from large data sets like the General Social Survey, but once you start slicing and dicing the data as we are wont to do, you end up with too few cases for meaningful analysis. For instance, we know from several data sources that education and religiosity are positively correlated among Latter-day Saints. I’m sure that the exact nature of this association is nuanced and complex, but extant data do not permit us to probe the issue deeply. This “data dearth” probably explains why the most visible recent sociological studies of Mormonism have focused on church growth and convert retention. We have pretty good data on this.

MN: The Pew data on belief in evolution, showing that the vast majority of Mormons believe it to be incompatible with religious explanations for creation, reveal a basic antipathy toward scientific approaches to understanding life. This sentiment continues toward social sciences, in my experience. Another problem is the perception that certain topics are off-limits if one wishes to teach at BYU or be an active, temple-attending church member. Some social scientists assert this is a stereotype, while others argue it to be a reality… but even if it is a stereotype, it remains a problem.

4. What advice would you give someone considering a career doing social scientific research on Mormonism?

RC: a. Don’t! ;) Go into physics or biology!

b. Okay, I’m mostly kidding. If I were starting at the beginning of graduate school knowing what I know now and was determined to become what I am today, I’d do things a bit different. First, get involved with the Mormon Social Science Association (I did do this, but kind of by accident). I don’t think people realize this, but pretty much every social scientist who has done significant work on Mormonism is a member of our association. And they are all very nice. If you have questions or want to work with any of these people, my sense is that they will: (1) absolutely answer your questions, and (2) probably work with you if they are not too busy on their own research.

c. The only real limitation here is that very few of us are at PhD granting institutions (see my answer to the first question and the last question for why this is the case). The major exception is the department at BYU – e.g., Cardell Jacobson, Tim Heaton, Marie Cornwall, John Hoffman, etc. As a result, we can’t really work with students in the traditional mentoring role. But that certainly wouldn’t prevent us from working with people remotely. So, first, get involved in the MSSA.

d. Second, unless you are going to BYU for graduate school, I’d recommend one of the really great PhD programs in religion: Duke, Notre Dame, Loyola. There you’ll get great training in religion generally, which will give you a lot of opportunities. You don’t necessarily have to focus on Mormonism to begin with, but you could do it on the side. Then, once you get a job, you could easily turn your attention to Mormonism. But, keep in mind what I said above – you’ll only get published in bigger venues if you can use Mormonism to make bigger arguments.

AM: Don’t devote your career to studying Mormons or Mormonism unless you want a life-long career as a church employee. Academic social science (probably like other professional or scholarly fields) tends to favor certain research topics much more than others. Indeed, there is a fad-like quality to which theories, methods, topics, and sub-disciplines are “in” and which ones are “out” in a given historical period. The fads tend to be politically driven. You can tell what’s “in” or “out” by what sorts of RFPs (requests for proposals) are issued by funding agencies, especially government agencies, and by what kinds of work come to dominate the academic journals. Until about 1970 (or late 60s), research on religion was definitely “out,” at least in sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics. However, as new religious movements arose to startle and scandalize the academic establishment in the social sciences, research on religion gradually gained a degree of acceptance (especially in sociology). In that context, research and publications on Mormons enjoyed a growing audience of social scientists. Yet it is still a research focus best treated as a secondary one for aspiring social scientists. I would recommend that young scholars make their mark in one or two of the “in” fields of research and then, as they gain seniority, gradually introduce Mormon-related work into their CVs, whether as books or as articles in the better journals, or both.


The Social Science of Mormonism Q&A, Part I


  1. Thanks to Mike, Ryan, Armand, Michael, and Rick for contributing this. I think there are some great discussions to be had here and with the upcoming part 2.

    Regarding the first question, both printed responses suggested that some (maybe even many?) LDS may be less comfortable with assumptions or methods employed in examining our religion from a social scientific angle than from a historical approach. The use of quantitative methods to measure various forms of religiosity, or to forecast such based on collected data, comes to mind here.

    While I have a deep and abiding love of quant methods in my heart, I admit that when I see such data in a religious setting, there is a momentary jump in skepticism–the expectation that, should the data disagree with my prior beliefs, it must stem from measurement error of some sort. Although I hope I’m able to control that knee-jerk reaction and look at data fairly, the reaction still exists.

    In that spirit, what would you tell a person like me–or actually someone more skeptical than me–to help them understand and appreciate the value that quantitative analysis of religiosity, and other social-scientific studies faith can contribute?

  2. Where can I find some of the research and findings done by notable Mormon Social Scientists?

  3. A variation of Tex’s comment: where can I find some of the research done about Mormons — hopefully accessible to a novice, with numbers presented in a friendly, Ziff-like manner.

  4. Great stuff.

    Can you point me in the direction of people currently doing research on Mormons and education?

  5. Questions I have:

    What do you consider the 3 greatest contributions of Social Sciences to Mormonism to date?

    What could latter-day saints learn from social sciences in regards to raising faithful healthy active LDS children?

    What could we learn from social sciences regarding convert selection and retention?

  6. John Mansfield says:

    Thanks to BCC for inviting these people to write about their work. I have a curiosity regarding the problem of insufficient data. The Church itself is far less limited in this area than researchers working without benefit of access to the membership records and home addresses of millions of Latter-day Saints. I suppose that the Church has some number of social scientists working in-house, providing reports to the central leadership, which due to its sensitive nature mostly remains in-house, with only little snippets appearing in the Ensign and training meetings. I suppose that when Elder Oaks worries aloud about LDS young adults putting off marriage, he has in-house research on the matter. Any comment on this?

    Also, I wonder about work like Hilton, Fellingham, and Lyon’s paper in the American Journal of Epidemiology, “Suicide Rates and Religious Commitment in Young Adult Males in Utah.” That paper looked at correlation between age-appropriate priesthood office and suicide; i.e., was the rate different for 17-year-old priests than it was for 17-year-old teachers and deacons? To do that they “obtained LDS church membership records for all church members residing in Utah for whom the church had a record of death between 1991 and 1995.” They also had a count of this church activity measure by age for the population that didn’t die during that period. How are the opportunities for access to the Church’s data like this?

  7. Steve Evans says:

    Let me throw this question out there: why don’t Mormons trust social scientists?

  8. And why don’t social scientists trust Mormons?

    (Us poor Mormon social scientists are left in a situation of total self-doubt.)

  9. Steve Evans says:

    JNS, not far from the truth!

  10. Great roundtable on a topic that hasn’t been talked about much on the blogs. A couple of questions I have that might get addressed in the second part: First, I know the LDS Church collects survey data from groups of Latter-day Saints time to time. How much, if any, of this Mormon-focused data is available to researchers? Second, I’d be interested in any comments on Thomas O’Dea’s 1957 book The Mormons that really initiated social scientific work on Mormonism and that remains very readable today.

  11. So many great questions! Let me try responding to some…

    2 Tex, 3 Ardis : The next blog post will ask about the respondent’s favorite social scientific books on Mormonism, but I can give you some quick refs here. For edited volumes see “Contempoary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives” edited by Cornwall, Heaton, and Young, and “Revisiting Thomas F. O’Dea’s The Mormons,” edited by Jacobsen, Hoffman, and Heaton. Books: Start with O’Dea’s “The Mormons.” Then go to Armand Mauss’s “The Angel and the Beehive.” All can be found at To get a more comprehensive list, go to the MSSA website, search “bibliography” in the search box, and look at the Mauss bibliography.

    4-Ronan: If you want refs, try
    – Solorzano, 2006, Latinos Education in Mormon Utah, 1910-1960, Latino Studies.
    – Merrill, Lyon, Jensen, 2003, Lack of a Secularizing Influence of Education on Religious Activity and Parity among Mormons, Journal for the Social Scientific Study of Religion.
    – Albrecht, Heaton, 1984, Secularization, Higher Education, and Religiosity, Review of Religious Research.

    But you probably know of these. More can be found in the bibliography I mentioned above. If it’s connections you want, I suggest submitting a question on the MSSA web site. It would be circulated to the MSSA membership.

    6-John, 10-Dave: The Church’s Research Information Division conducts various in-house studies but generally does not make its data public. And the Church Handbook tells local leaders to not let researchers conduct studies in their wards without approval from SLC.

    10-Dave: The O’Dea book I mentioned above is a great book to see how modern social scientists are thinking about O’Dea’s ideas today. A first cut is that O’Dea was prescient on many things (many ideas in his chapter on tensions in the LDS Church still hold true), but he missed other things and how the Church would be affected by them (e.g., the international Church).

  12. Armand Mauss says:

    To Scott B. (#1) : You would do well to remain skeptical. Social scientists are well advised to be skeptical of each others’ work. It is skepticism and the derivative mutual criticism that make possible the gradual accumulation of dependable findings about the empirical world. “Social science” means different things to different scholars. At its most rigorous, it attempts to follow the model of the natural sciences (theory-driven hypotheses tested systematically with reliable empirical data). However, less rigorous and systematic methods are also employed and can be very revealing (e. g. ethnographic studies). As social scientists attempt to apply the methodology (or at least the reasoning) of the natural sciences, a recurring difficulty is found in devising reliable measurements. To the extent that variables are inherently quantitative and empirical in nature (e. g., the sheer number of Mormons found in sacrament meetings on a given Sunday), measurement is fairly simple. However, when we try to measure how religious Mormons are (“religiosity”), we are measuring a non-empirical variable for which some sort of empirical indicator must be devised (perhaps affirmative responses in a questionnaire to five statements of orthodox belief). If you believe a given empirical measure of a non-empirical variable is valid and reliable, then you will have some confidence in the findings. Otherwise you won’t. In any case, you are right that the measurement issue is critical. That doesn’t mean simply disregarding a study because some of its variables were difficult to measure; it does mean taking the trouble to investigate and evaluate the validity of a measure to one’s own satisfaction.
    You touch on another matter that “consumers” of social science research must keep in mind : In the realm of Mormon Studies, social scientists are typically studying MORMONS, not MormonISM. The truth claims of the LDS religion about divine interventions, prophets, revelation, spiritual experiences, etc., are not at stake. Social scientists can’t study such things; they can study only what Mormons do and say, not whether their beliefs are true or valid (although an argument about “by their fruits” will sometimes try to measure the impact of LDS teachings on member behavior). With this perspective (on Mormons, not -ism), there is no reason that the workings of the Church as an organization cannot also be studied in a social-scientific way. Even if one assumes that LDS prophets and other leaders are divinely inspired, there is no guarantee that the Church members or organizational structure will give full and accurate expression to such divine guidance. In other words, the LDS religion might be understood as having had a divine origin, but the LDS Church is still a human organization, as susceptible to social-scientific study as General Motors.

    To Tex and Ardis (#2, #3) : You will find a lengthy cumulative bibliography of social science (and quasi-social science) work on the Mormons as of 1997 or 1998 as Part III (pp. 1057-1152) in the massive history bibliography compiled by James Allen, Ronald Walker, and David Whittaker, Studies in Mormon History, 1830-1997 (University of Illinois Press, 2000). It should be available in most large libraries. An attempt to keep both the history and the social science bibliography current since then has been carried on at BYU (see Both the large print version and the subsequent BYU electronic updates are accessible by topic or subject. A bibliographic essay reviewing the history and significance of social science research on Mormons will be found as Chapter 5 in Ronald Walker, David Whittaker, and James Allen, Mormon History (University of Illinois Press, 2001). Some of the works listed in these sources will have Ziff-like presentations; others might be a little more complicated.

    To Ronan (#4) : There is a short list on Education on pp. 1100-1101 of the big Allen et al. bibliography, mentioned above. I would recommend contacting the School of Education at BYU with inquiries about recent research on Mormons and education. I can’t say that I know much about that line of inquiry. I’ve seen simple distributions of Mormons by educational attainment (sometimes in comparison with non-Mormons) in various reports, including the most recent Pew report. A few pages are devoted to education in the 2004 book, A Statistical Profile of Mormons, Chapter 2, by Tim Heaton, Stephen Bahr, and Cardell Jacobson (Edwin Mellen Press).

  13. Mike McBride says:

    Sorry, I meant my last name to show up on the prior post.

    1-Scott, 7-Steve: Here are some ideas.

    They do not think the divine processes that they believe to be at work in the LDS Church or in their own lives can be adequately explained by social scientific theories. Hence, they are not as insightful as advertized.

    They might also think that the studies can be detrimental to faith because they posit only human (not divine) processes at work in the Church. To some it might follow that such a view, if taken too far, would undermine someone’s faith in Church doctrines and leaders.

    I would say to members that social scientific theories and explanations will always be incomplete (whether for lack of mentioning the divine or something else), but it doesn’t follow that they are worthless. The Church uses social scientific methods to study itself. It has a staff of well-trained professionals who have access to (from what I hear is) pretty sweet in-house data which they use to write reports for Church leaders upon request.

    All that being said, the social scientific theories provide the human side of religion. Whether or not there is divine influence, there is also human influence, and any divine influence must work through humans, too. So social science should have value if well applied. However, don’t be afraid if the research identifies places where the Church can improve (e.g., retention).

    If I were a gambling man, I’d be willing to bet that many subtle changes in LDS policies come, at least partly, as a result of social scientific insights. Changing the name from Adult Aaronics to prospective elders, changes in the missionary discussions, etc.

  14. a friendly, Ziff-like manner

    Aww. Thanks, Ardis! Sorry I don’t have any of the goods myself.

    I suppose that the Church has some number of social scientists working in-house, providing reports to the central leadership, which due to its sensitive nature mostly remains in-house, with only little snippets appearing in the Ensign and training meetings.

    I understand that the Church has a division that does do this type of research, and your description of it is exactly correct. Their research is entirely for in-house use; it’s done mostly (entirely?) based on requests by General Authorities. It’s called the Research Information Division, or at least it was a decade ago.

  15. re: #13

    I would agree with you and argue that most changes in LDS policies (not just subtle ones) come from social scientific insights. Several examples:

    - Proclamation #1 never states that polygamy was wrong. It merely points out what would happen to the church if it was continued, which wasn’t ideal. So polygamy was changed.

    - Proclamation #2 came about (according to McKay’s biography) after years of discussion and negotiations about whether the restrictions on blacks were a practice or a doctrine. Ultimately, a revelation ensued, but without societal pressure, the question may not have been asked.

    - The temple endowment has been changed after social findings that some things turned people off

    - Women in the early 1970′s weren’t allowed to speak in sacrament meeting. It may be coincidence, but around the whole ERA thing, this changed.

    Many, many other things – some quite significant – have changed as a result of societal insights.

  16. Armand Mauss says:

    To John Mansfield (#6) : You are quite right, as Mike indicates in #11, that the work done in the LDS Research Information Division (RID) is highly proprietary and very difficult to access. That’s a shame, too, because it is among the most skilled and sophisticated social science research that’s been done. You are also right that the results of such research often come out (very superficially) in conference talks or in the Ensign. I had not been aware of the article you cite on suicide rates of LDS boys, but from your description of the data, I can’t imagine how the authors would have gotten access to such data except through the RID. You might wish to inquire about circumstances under which researchers might get access to RID studies. Perry Cunningham is part of the senior management at RID, and he is very cooperative within certain limits. Maybe he can give you some helpful guidance (

  17. Armand Mauss says:

    To Matt (#5) : Social scientists generally do not do their work with the objective of trying to make “contributions to Mormonism,” though that happens. It would be very difficult to identify any specific contributions of that kind, since they would never be acknowledged publicly even if they had a major impact. It’s little known among the Saints that LDS leaders for years have been hiring consultants of all kinds (often non-LDS) for certain specific studies and tasks, but these consultants and/or their studies are never acknowledged publicly (though I don’t think that such would be denied publicly, either).
    On the questions of healthy LDS family life, or convert retention, I will refer you to the bibliographic resources that I mentioned in earlier responses. Also, on healthy LDS family life, I would refer you to Tim Heaton and his colleagues in the Family Research Center (or similar name) at BYU. Some of the best work on family life has been done by LDS scholars and has appeared in the major journals of social science, so I refer you again to the bibliographies. On convert retention (or lack of same), a great deal of good work has appeared during the past decade or so in the pages of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. More recently, we have the work of David Stewart (a pediatric orthopedist doing good social science), whose The Law of the Harvest is a trenchant and enlightening critique of the predicament that the Church has drifted into for the past few decades. See also his website,

  18. I don’t really have anything to add, but I wish to thank the contributors as this is quite informative.

  19. Armand Mauss says:

    To Dave (#10) : I think your question about LDS proprietary data was adequately answered in some of our earlier responses. As for your question about the O’Dea book, I agree with your assessment of it. I have continued to use it as a textbook in courses that I have taught recently at the Claremont Graduate University. A collection of essays assessing the place of O’Dea’s book in Mormon studies today was published in 2008 by the University of Utah Press (edited by Jacobson, Hoffmann, and Heaton (Revisiting Thomas F. O’Dea’s The Mormons), and you might wish to browse through that. The relevance and quality of the essays in that collection are quite variable, but I think you would find it worthwhile to get the book, since you think so highly of O’Dea.

  20. Mike McBride says:

    Way to go on the answers, Armand. You’d better take a lunch break to let your fingers relax.

    Hey Rick and Ryan: Jump in here boys, the water is fine.

  21. Mike McBride says:


    I’m surprised that you recommended someone go into a PhD program in religion if they want to do social science research. Why recommend that over, say, a sociology PhD program?

    This query is not a knock of religion PhD programs. It’s just that you won’t learn as much about working with data in one of those programs.

  22. Michael Nielsen says:

    Mike, I’m pretty sure that Ryan mean “sociology of religion”, rather than “religion”, when he mentioned going to Notre Dame, Duke or Loyola. As I understand it, those are some of the top soc. of rel. programs.

  23. Rick Phillips says:

    Re #5: What could we learn from social sciences regarding convert selection and retention?

    Most studies show that people who are amenable to making a dramatic religious shift tend to be “structurally amenable” to this kind of change. New immigrants, recent divorcees, people who are new in town–anyone who is free from the kind of extensive social ties that might prevent them from joining a “greedy” religious movement. This is why new immigrant communities are among the most fruitful fields in many otherwise stagnant European missions.

    With respect to retention, studies are quite clear that the nations with the fastest growth rates have the lowest retention rates. At the risk of committing the ecological fallacy, I’d surmise, then, that those who convert in a slow and deliberate manner have a much better chance of being sown on fertile soil than those who are rushed to baptism by the missionaries. I think recent changes in the way that missionaries are trained to proselytize demonstrate that this is well understood by the church. Those of us who study church growth are eagerly awaiting the 2010 census data from those nations that ask citizens for their religious affiliation. I suspect that these will show that LDS growth has slowed, but retention has improved. The last round of censuses demonstrated that growing fast and growing strong are not synonymous. In light of these data, the church has made some adjustments to ensure that new converts are better able to integrate into their new congregations, even though these changes are likely to slow down the rate of new convert baptisms.

  24. Rick Phillips says:

    Re #5: What could latter-day saints learn from social sciences in regards to raising faithful healthy active LDS children?

    Studies show that only a small part of one’s desire to consume religion is heritable. Hence, it stands to reason that when two extremely religious people have children, the religiosity of the children is likely to regress toward the mean. The studies of I’ve seen (which are based on Protestant fundamentalism) show that people are more likely to convert their friends than retain their children, since friends are usually self-selected based on homophily.

    Among Latter-day Saints, it used to be the case that the conflation of church and social norms in Utah helped retain children in the faith by fusing religious and social obligations. (E.g. the decision to serve a mission or attend seminary as something peers support vs. something they deride.) However, recent data show that rates of disaffiliation in the Intermountain West have risen to meet those in the rest of the nation. The recent Pew Report shows that almost one out of every three U.S. Latter-day Saints raised in the faith no longer professes to be Mormon. Sociologists have little good news for highly religious parents who want their children to be as religious as they are. Best to rely on prayer and fasting for this one.

    (Stuff like this might partly explain why religious people aren’t too fond of sociology . . .)

  25. Rick Phillips says:

    Re: #7 – Let me throw this question out there: why don’t Mormons trust social scientists?

    Re: #8 – And why don’t social scientists trust Mormons?

    I can’t speak for all of the social sciences, but almost all of the founding theorists in sociology argued that societal evolution would lead to the eventual extinction of religion. Atheism and contempt for religion are foundational ideas in sociology! And this is no historical artifact. Studies show that social scientists are far less religious than their colleagues in other disciplines. Many of my colleagues are openly hostile to religion. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when religious people return the sentiment. Fortunately, some recent developments in the sociology of religion are helping the discipline move past this, but its going to take time. (Like maybe centuries . . .)

  26. Mike McBride says:

    Rick (and others?), How much has the field of sociology moved past the old sentiments? My sense is that there is no real consensus when it comes to sociologists’ predictions about the future of religion. That being said, more sociologists today than in the past would probably admit that its demise is not going to happen any time soon. Some might even say that it is here to stay.

  27. Rick Phillips says:

    Re: Mike #26

    In my opinion, the discipline of sociology in the U.S. has been virtually commandeered by political idealogues with an agenda that is very hostile to the worldview of people in the religious mainstream. The extinction of religion used to be something that was central to sociological theory, now it’s a central desire of many sociologists. Even most sociologists who study religion are hostile to religion. That said, things have softened up a bit, and it has been due primarily (in my opinion) to the theoretical revitalization in the sociology of religion ignited by the “rational choice” school. Some of the work being done is now too good for the best journals to ignore it. Nevertheless, sociology departments still tend to be very irreligious. In fact, it is bad enough that if I was a Ph.D. student at BYU I might worry about being discriminated against on the job market.

  28. Mike McBride says:

    Rick: “Even most sociologists who study religion are hostile to religion.”
    That’s not the sense I get when I attend the SSSR meetings. But perhaps people less hostile to religion self-select into those meetings.

  29. Rick Phillips says:

    I take back the word “most.” How about “many.”?

  30. Michael Nielsen says:

    For what its worth, in psychology the situation is similar. Most psychologists show a bias against religion, but the situation has softened somewhat. Part of what might be different between psychology and sociology, however, is that the American Psychological Association division that focuses on religion is among the most conservative in an otherwise politically liberal body. Many psychologists who are part of that division appear to be convinced that the rest of the organization ignores their contribution, while others see the APA as ignoring psych of religion more because of bureaucratic inertia or apathy than because of outright bias.

    Another difference might be that APA has recognized a need for clinicians to be knowledgeable about religious issues. Consequently, the past decade or so has seen several well-received books aimed at clinicians focusing on religion. (Scott Richards at BYU has had a vital role in this.)

    Still, there is a split in psychology that divides clinicians against those who conduct more basic research (for lack of a better way of describing it). Clinicians are more dominant in the section for psych of religion than are basic researchers.

  31. Thanks for the great post!
    Some quick thoughts. My training is in Anthropology (some kin of social science). Unlike #25, religion is viewed as a needed part of Culture, and good have in it.
    History seems about others, while Social Science is about ‘me’. Does this lead to the disliking of it?
    Fawn Brodie, did too much Social Science in her writing help to bring the storm against her?

  32. Armand and Rick, thanks for your Responses!

  33. “I’d surmise, then, that those who convert in a slow and deliberate manner have a much better chance of being sown on fertile soil than those who are rushed to baptism by the missionaries. I think recent changes in the way that missionaries are trained to proselytize demonstrate that this is well understood by the church.”

    Rick, up until a few weeks ago I assumed the same. But my stake has been chosen to be a pilot for a new “tour the LDS chapel” missionary program. We were given a practice tour, pretending to be friends of members. After a stop in the foyer and the chapel we were led back to the room containing the font. The missionaries gave us an abbreviated first discussion lasting about 3 minutes, pulled back the partition to the font and not only challenged us to be baptized but asked us to set a date for that baptism.

  34. #24 Rick,

    “Studies show that only a small part of one’s desire to consume religion is heritable.”

    Do you have a citation for this? This seems highly counterintuitive to me. Indeed, I thought the strongest correlating factor in one’s religious affiliation was that of one’s parents, although perhaps the intensity of belief may be more due to externalities (recovery from crisis, dislocation, addiction).

  35. Armand Mauss says:

    My experience with missionary methods in a couple of different stakes recently (including my own) confirms what KLC has experienced. As long as there remain mission presidents with a huckster mentality, we will continue to hemorrhage unconverted members, who disappear out the back door before they’ve attended half a dozen church meetings. Even the supposedly “new” approach in Preach My Gospel envisions baptisms after only three or four discussions, with no sustained period of church attendance, observance of the WoW, etc., before baptism.
    — Armand

  36. The missionaries gave us an abbreviated first discussion lasting about 3 minutes, pulled back the partition to the font and not only challenged us to be baptized but asked us to set a date for that baptism.

    Holy crap.

  37. The missionaries gave us an abbreviated first discussion lasting about 3 minutes, pulled back the partition to the font and not only challenged us to be baptized but asked us to set a date for that baptism.

    KLC, was that supposed to be a literal demonstration of what missionaries would indeed inflict on chapel-tourists, or was it intended to be a telescoped version to give your ward members a general sense of what they would be doing?

    I have to ask, because in addition to sharing Scott B.’s reaction, I can’t get my imagination around the idea that anybody would think anybody would accept such an invitation — or that anybody would ever be willing to take a chapel tour under those circumstances. I mean, who in his right mind would invite a friend to be ambushed that way, and who in his right mind thinks the press and anti-Mormons wouldn’t quickly become aware of such a tactic and scare away any curious tourists? There has to be something more than you report.

  38. Ardis, as I was sitting through the “tour” I had all of your thoughts: There has to be more to it than this, they can’t really be serious, who in their right mind, haven’t we learned our lesson…

    But this is exactly what they want to do and how they want to do it, I know because further discussions and a recent missionary sac mtg have left no doubts. They have made one recent change, they no longer call it a tour, they are calling it Teaching in Sacred Places. But they still intend to issue a baptismal challenge, not a “soft” one as in if you know this to be true would you get baptized, but a “hard” challenge, as in what day can we schedule your baptism.

    As to who would invite their friends to experience this, I’m guessing only time share salesmen, the kind who send you those invitations in the mail for a free weekend at a fabulous resort…

  39. A little piece of my heart just died.

  40. Go on, Ardis, take another little piece of your heart now, baby.

  41. KLC,

    We did that “tour the chapel” in this mission a few years back, but it was more of a tour and invitation to attend church on sunday. Guess mileage varies…

  42. Michael Nielsen says:

    #34- Dan, here are a couple of places that give more information on the heritability of religiosity. A general, summary statement is found at wikipedia:
    and the references on that page offer some of the citations of the research. Some people don’t like wikipedia, but it offers a decent summary of the research.

    If you want to read an original report, I found one available online for free.

    FWIW, I would characterize the contribution of heritability differently than Rick did, as studies show that at the population level heritability accounts for nearly half of people’s religiosity, depending on age and other factors. But Rick and I are coming from different perspectives, and we likely have different measures of religiosity in mind.

    And, coming back to one of the questions that Mike asked us, it is worth noting that the wikipedia link above refers to research done by our friends at BYU and the LDS Research Information Division, illustrating that research on Mormonism is important to social science.

  43. Wow! From

    “contribution of genes to variation in religiosity (called heritability) increases from 12% to 44% and the contribution of shared (family) effects decreases from 56% to 18% between adolescence and adulthood.”

    Am I reading this right? We actually have a genetic predisposition to religiosity?! And that we are preprogrammed (halfway) to need to believe in Jesus/Easter Bunny/Martians? I have always suspected that some people seem innately credulous, but I find it disturbing to think that I am preprogrammed to be skeptical to such an extent that I am unable to believe in hypotheses unsupported by data.

    I always thought that Rationalism was an acquired taste (via a liberal education). Could atheism actually be a Pervasive Spectrum Disorder? It is interesting that this/these genes are expressed in adolescence. Schizophrenia usually also presents at the same time.

    Perhaps Free Agency is not so free after all?

  44. Rick Phillips says:

    Re: #34 Dan

    I am talking mostly about the intensity of religiosity. Imagine that religiosity is normally distributed and ranges from 0 (completely irreligious) to 10 (completely devout). Imagine a new church seeking members that is so “greedy” that only 10s will freely assume the high cost of membership. If 1000 such people join, the mean religiosity of church members would be 10. But if these 1000 people intermarry and produce 1000 children, it is inconceivable that this second generation could ever have a mean religiosity of 10 when they become adults.

    This is not to say that the religiosity of the second generation wouldn’t be profoundly influenced by the parents, but the parents are from such an extreme point on the religiosity curve that regression to the mean among the children is inevitable.

  45. Dang that missing </i> tag! Obviously, only the first paragraph is a quote from Wikipedia. Still, the correlation (causation?) between genetics and religiosity is worthy of emphasis.

  46. Rick Phillips says:

    #45 – The decline of family effects, as hereditary differences break through the social environment, is equally worthy of emphasis, and is a source of great sadness for many devout Mormon parents.

  47. Michael and Rick, thanks for the info. Let me switch hats from social science to theology…

    What are the implications for Free Agency? If mortals are in some sense predisposed towards or against religiosity, what about premortals? Do they even have genes? If so, were they already hardwired not to have faith in God’s wisdom? Were these the ones who followed Lucifer?

    Except that, according to “two churches only; the one is the church of the Lamb of God, and the other is the church of the devil” (1 Nephi 14:10), it would seem that every premortal (and mortal) actively believes something (for good or bad). Was there an implicit third choice (no church). or is the devil’s church nonbelief itself? If so, how is it that nonbelievers became mortal? If not, and some people are disinclined to believe anything they cannot see (e.g. Doubting Thomas), is this a form of spiritual blindness, akin to physical blindness, and if so, is this exculpatory before God? Assuming premortals got to choose the level of “challenge” they would face on earth (with promise of concomitantly greater rewards for greater challenges), perhaps I have overreached in choosing these genes? (But then, what would have been my incentive to do so?)

    I am obviously no theologian (just a man with lots of questions), but it seems that this implications from this nexus of heredity and religiosity would be very important to believers. Ironically, it is of no particular importance to atheists, for whom it produces benign tautology rather than disturbing paradox.

    Any thoughts?

  48. Mike McBride says:

    I think one distinction worth making in this discussion on heritability is between genetic factors passed down and socialization. The studies and theory I am familiar with say that the latter is a very strong and persistent force but without saying anything about the former. In other words, parents play an important role (of course!), but it is in raising their children in their own faith not in passing on a God gene.

  49. Michael Nielsen says:

    #43, 47
    Dan, you are right that there would seem to be many, many implications for the research… especially for a faith like Mormonism, that is rather materialistic. (By that, I mean we have in our canon such ideas as matter not being created ex nihilo, etc.)

    Most psychologists would not leap from research on the role of heritability and environment to assert that free will isn’t part of the human condition. But at the same time, most would agree that our range of options is constrained greatly by heredity and environmental forces. So, from an LDS perspective we may have free will, but it may not be as broad and unfettered as we believe it to be. And I think that most people would probably recognize this in their own choices; we see that our options are limited by our physical characteristics and our situation. The glitch is, that we don’t see such limitations in others.

    The other thing I’d add is that finding a comfortable reconciliation between Mormonism’s materialistic view and the implications of the scientific research is not a simple thing. For example, you ask if premortals have genes. If genes are essential for distinguishing whether one is male vs female, and if the proclamation on the family is correct and gender (or sex, depending on one’s academic discipline) is eternal , then it would seem important to find a way to connect those areas of study. I don’t believe that anyone has accomplished that, although I’d appreciate being pointed in the direction of someone who has done that work.

    So, I agree that the questions you pose are important ones. They don’t seem to me to have been answered very well yet.

  50. Michael Nielsen says:

    And I should add that one of the things I like about MSSA is that it offers a chance to discuss things like this across disciplines. Most academic organizations don’t facilitate cross-disciplinary discussions like this, but at MSSA I have a chance to have a conversation with a sociologist, economist, and anthropologist on topics we are interested in. It is stimulating in a way that psychology conferences can’t be.

    OK, that’s the end of the commercial for MSSA. :-)

  51. Ryan Cragun says:

    RE: Mike #21 –

    Mike Nielsen was right – I meant PhD programs in Sociology as those are good Sociology PhD programs with prominent sociologists of religion.

    (Sorry to be so late to the game. I followed most of this earlier in the week, but was swamped with classes and child care.)

  52. Ryan Cragun says:

    RE: Mike and Rick’s discussion of the religiosity of social scientists…

    I have unpublished data on this from members of SSSR. I haven’t looked at the data from this for years (it’s circa 2004 and was used in my MA Thesis), but what I have says that in 2004 about 14% of SSSR members reported their religion as “None.”

    As far as belief goes, 34% are either atheists, agnostics, or deists (mostly agnostics and deists). And as far as attendance goes, only about 8% rarely or never attend, while close to 70% attend very frequently.

  53. Ryan Cragun says:

    RE: Heritability of religiosity

    The best research I’ve seen on this is twin studies. Two studies suggest a nearly .50 correlation between twins reared apart on religiosity:
    -Bouchard, Thomas J. Jr., David T. Lykken, Matthew McGue, Nancy L. Segal, and Auke Tellegen. 1990. “Sources of Human Psychological Differences: The Minnesota Study of Twins Reared Apart.” Science 223-228.
    -Waller, N. G., B. A. Kojetin, T. J. Jr. Bouchard, D. T. Lykken, and A. Tellegen. 1990. “Genetic and environmental influences on religious interests, attitudes, and values: A study of twins reared apart and together.” Psychological Science 1:138-42.

    Additionally, there is at least one article that supports Rick’s assertion that socialization does translate into a strong influence on adolescent religiosity but there is no correlation between emerging adulthood religiosity (young adults) and parental religiosity:
    Arnett, Jeffrey Jensen, and Lene Arnett Jensen. 2002. “A Congregation of One: Individualized Religious Beliefs Among Emerging Adults.” Journal of Adolescent Research 17:451-467.

    In short, there may be something of a genetic component to religiosity, but it definitely isn’t well-understood at this point.


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