Since the results for the Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Study (RLS) were released, there has been fairly little attention paid in the Bloggernacle to the outcomes as they pertain to LDS belief and policy–a few posts here and there, mostly reporting a particular outcome: As a Church, we are more effective at retaining life-long members than any other of the major religions included in the study. However, an eye single to this stat robs us of a more curious one: the LDS Church is the only major religion in the United States in which lifelong members exhibit higher degrees of religiosity than converts. Julie Smith at Times & Seasons provided a link to a summary article on this topic last October, and I recommend reading the comments in her thread, as they touch on the key purposes of this post. The full paper can be found here and contains considerably more detail.
To summarize, according to a study by researchers from the Pew Forum, converts to every Christian-tradition religion examined in the RLS reported higher levels of religiosity than lifelong members except for the LDS Church. While the differences in religiosity were generally small across the board, the directional difference for the LDS Church is still interesting. According to the data, we have the following relative difference between lifelong members and converts:
|Religious Activity: Lifelong Member vs. Convert|
|Status||Religion is Very Important||Attends Religious Service Weekly||Absolutely Certain of Belief in God||Prays Daily||Shares Faith/Views on God Weekly||One True Faith||N|
|Bold font denotes statistically a significant difference.|
The first thought I had after viewing this data relates to how important callings and serving in the Church may be as a guarantor or protector of sustained activity. While exceptions certainly abound, especially if the data were to be expanded into international areas, it seems like a reasonable assumption that, on average, lifelong members of the Church are more likely–because of increased probability of having served a mission, exposure to training, prior callings, and larger networks within the Church–to find themselves serving in leadership positions in the Church. Clearly, this holds much more for converts who join the Church at age 50 than those who join at age 14, but I don’t find the idea that a disproportionate number of the positions which “keep a person coming out to meetings weekly” in most of the wards in the U.S. would be filled by lifelong members particularly difficult to believe. Perhaps some of you can correct me here.
As seen in the data, the percentage of recent converts who frequently share their faith with others is the only statistic where converts dominate lifelong members. As several people in the comments at T&S pointed out, this may be simply a function of networks: converts in general have fewer LDS friends, and are therefore more likely to explain their (recently changed) beliefs to people around them. I also think this outcome is affected by two other possibilities: First, lifelong members and converts are not distributed evenly across geographic regions, and second, the frequency with which converts are called as ward missionaries or asked by full-time missionaries to help teach investigators.
Another, more interesting (to me, anyway) issue relates to self-reported data. Because the RLS data are self-reported, the relationship between the data and reality necessarily depends on the attitudes of respondents. A few questions are important here:
1. Are disaffected Mormons more or less likely to self-identify as Mormons than disaffected Protestants, Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc… are to self-identify as members of their respective (former) religions? What elements of any religion–Mormon or otherwise–are likely to be infused permanently into individuals and retained as valuable cultural tradition, resulting in self-identification, even in the face of religious disaffiliation?
My anecdotal experience leads me to believe that disaffected Mormons are less likely to self-identify as Mormons than disaffected members of other religions. In my estimation, the primary reason for this is that, once the theological weight of the cultural characteristics which help Mormons identify as a group are discarded, there is surprisingly little left in the way of uniquely “Mormon” tradition. For example, as pointed out and illustrated by Steve Evans only wee hours ago, we essentially have no liturgical calendar. Outside of Utah’s Pioneer Day celebrations, there are essentially no unique holidays, feasts, or other culturally “Mormon” events to which theologically disaffected Mormons may bind themselves to.
(Wouldn’t that just be the nerdiest thing ever if a huge crowd of disaffected Mormons gathered together once a year to celebrate their cultural Mormonism by partying without coffee, tea, and alcohol while consuming ridiculous quantities of Jello and funeral potatoes. They could call it a Linger-Less-Longer.)
2. Are disaffected lifelong Mormons more or less likely to self-identify as Mormons than disaffected convert Mormons?
Here, the water is a bit murkier, since I’ve already staked out a position that, after stripping away the theology of the Restoration and the weight of the counsel from LDS Church leaders, there is little left for cultural grazers to munch on. In that regard, I don’t really expect either of them to self-identify because I don’t believe either has much to hang on to. However, if forced to choose, I suspect that disaffected converts are less likely to self-identify as Mormons, because in my experience (very authoritative!) they are more likely to have continued searching for religion in other areas, whereas disaffected lifelong Mormons tend to go agnostic/atheist upon departure. In other words, whereas “there is a vast ocean of cultural Catholics–who see themselves as Catholic even if they have no participation with the core institution…by and large, people who stop attending seem to stop identifying as Mormon at all and they would therefore seem less likely to be swayed by an appeal to nostalgia.”
The idea that disaffected Mormon converts continue searching for religion is reasonable in my view simply because of the extremely low barriers to entry into the LDS Church. It’s only been in recent times that the requirement for baptism included attending Church meetings twice instead of just once. When compared to the more rigorous entry requirements of many other religions, it should not be surprising that, as an institution, we catch some converts “who are really still window-shopping.”
All in all, it seems likely to me that, the Pew Forum’s survey results likely overstate the retention rates of both lifelong and convert Mormons, with the retention of convert Mormons being the more overstated of the two. I’m certainly open to changing my opinion on this, and am also curious about what suggestions there are for policy changes–if any–going forward in light of these outcomes.
 Curse you, Julie Smith. I may be derivative, but at least I didn’t know I was derivative when I wrote the post. I had this entire post written and was just doing some poking around before publishing when I came across your thread.
 Authors of the paper are Allison Pond, Greg Smith, Neha Sahgal, and Scott F. Clement.
 That’s a lie, actually. The first thought I had was that, if we’re better at keeping lifelong members of the Church than we are at retaining converts, and if we’re interested in raising membership and activity rates, the path forward is simple: more sex (between married people, of course!) and fewer missionaries.
 Take a screenshot, kids. This may be your only chance to see Steve Evans use all-caps.
 This belief was confirmed by a few other (smarter) people I spoke with who have moved into and/or out of Mormonism from various directions and prior beliefs. One culturally Catholic, but religiously atheist, friend of mine responded thusly: “Purely anecdotally, I would say that Jews are most tightly bound to the non-religious aspects of their identification (nation, culture, persecution complex), followed by Catholics (family, guilt, lack of enterprise). Jews become atheist, Catholics become agnostic, Mormons become shell-shocked and bitter, and go into therapy to become professional ex-Mormons, and Evangelicals become either Catholic or self-dealing narcissists. Muslims can never leave Islam. Lutherans seem happy staying Lutheran.”
 Thanks to John Hamer for this quote, as well as to JNS, Hamer, Mike, and Dan Weston for letting me bounce ideas off of them.