Belief = Social Pathology

An article in Slate today reminds me of how mormons are often perceived as fanatical because we strongly belief in a strict system of rules and practices.  However, as the article points out, strict belief systems are themselves a source of strength for religions: "economist Laurence Iannacone makes the counterintuitive case that people choose to be strictly religious because of the quantifiable benefits their piety affords them, not just in the afterlife but in the here and now."

Is that counterintuitive?  Is that assertion applicable to Mormonism?

First I think we’d need to isolate the quantifiable benefits piety awards Mormons in the here and now.  There aren’t many that are easily quantifiable (besides the blessing of paying tithing).  But we could list social interaction, temple attendance, health benefits and a few others.  Iannacone lists a few more that could be applicable to mormons.  Fair enough — there are some out there.

But do Mormons toe the line because of benefits received in the here and now?  Are we pious because of the quality of our religious product, and the community we receive?  That’s impossible to say for certain, but I would guess that mormons by and large don’t factor in the here-and-now on a conscious level to the extent suggested by the article.  Ideally, we don’t try and distinguish between future and present rewards: the same society that exists in Zion now will have power to carry forward into the next life.  Likewise, our sealed relationships are here as they will be going forward.  As for salvation, we assert that sinners can come unto Christ and taste of his salvation immediately, if they choose — no waiting for the afterlife to see if you turn out saved (assuming you endure to the end).

And yet, and yet…. there is an undeniable element of truth in what this article asserts.  When I go to church, it’s not just out of some pie-in-the-sky ideal, it’s in large measure to be with my fellow saints and to soak in the spirit of our religion.  Perhaps Mormons aren’t so different after all — although I’d like to think we are.


  1. If anyone is interested, Iannacone’s paper can be read here.

  2. Thanks Justin — perfect! now we just sit back and wait for Frank McIntyre to weigh in…

  3. I think I am getting immediate tangible benefits from the Mormon Religion. I don’t think I am alone either – look at that recent study of teens that every one is giddy about.

    I think that my marriage is stronger, my interfamilial relationships are better, and my studies and career are more successful. This is not to say that there aren’t examples of failed marriage (Utah County) or anything else for that matter; but that the gospel that I try to live and that very many associates try to live has real effect.

    I haven’t read through the whole article yet, but I find nothing counterintuitive at all in this. In fact, I imagine that I would be more prone to reject the gospel were it not for these benefits.

  4. lyle stamps says:

    Steve: Seems counter-intuitive re: Mormons; esp. given the fairly well received meme in the ‘nacle that Church is more to be endured than enjoyed, having a testimony of the Church and _not_ the people who are living it, etc.

  5. Lyle, I think you are dismissing the very real benefit of the Church as a support system. I think it’s wonderful that no matter where I go, I know I have people who will become my friends and provide help when I need it. It’s been a real lifesaver for me through the years. I have a testimony of the church *and* the people in it. Nobody’s perfect and we all fall short of the glory, etc., but there are some wonderful people in the church who bless others continually.

  6. I have a good (Catholic) friend who told me, when I went to visit her after she had her fourth baby in five years, that she’d gladly pay 10% of her income to pay for the reassurance that women from her church would bring her family dinner for a week after childbirth. There are our quantifiable benefits!

    Of course, I felt extremely guilty hearing her say this, as I realized she had no help at all and I’d brought only really messy frosted cookies for her three young kids to devour right before bedtime.

  7. Doesn’t seem all that counterintuitive to me. When the full benefits of membership are reserved for those who contribute 10% of their income, you can rest assured that only the truly committed remain. Those who would like to ride free are quickly screened out of the church, because no one would pay the price to belong unless they really believed. This raises the mean level of religiosity in Mormon wards far beyond that of, say, the typical Catholic parish. However, there are two unintended consequences of this formula. The first is that the church’s strictness is the cause of very low convert retention, since newly baptized Saints don’t realize what they’ve gotten themselves into until later. When the costs kick in, those sown on stony ground drop out. Also, I don’t think the strictness formula explains the behavior of Utah Mormons because many people in UT submit to the church’s lifestyle demands because of cultural or familial pressures. For example, I may not want to pay my tithing, but I REALLY want to attend my sister’s upcoming temple wedding. This, by the way, is why many mission field Saints get exasperated with Utah Mormons that move into their midst. Converts are there 100% by choice. Deseret Mormons are often there partly by choice, partly by external pressures. Hence the reputation of Utah Mormons among mission field Saints as less committed and lax.

  8. Rick: How does that square with the complaint that Utah Mormons think they know how the Church is “really” run? That doesn’t seem to point to less committed or lax ortho-doxy or -praxy.

    Now, while I like your committment as a barrier to permanent “entry” theory on the # of inactives…it doesn’t hold, or does it? Converts are told what is expected of them up front; i.e. 10%, chastity, WoW, 3 hours of church/week, don’t work on Sunday, etc. So…when do the “costs kick in” that they were previously unaware of?

    Mari: I admit, my tongue was partially in cheek since this blog has the “reputation” of being more critical of the Church/its members than some others; hence it seemed like an ironic topic.

  9. Aaron Brown says:

    Whatever are you talking about, Lyle? We totally tow the line over here. You must have us confused with somewhere else.

  10. Lyle: In my travels outside UT I encountered lots of Deseret Mormons who complained about how onerous home teaching was in places where Saints are sparse, or how time-consuming it is to fill two (or three) callings. Converts in the mission field take this as a given, and either shoulder the burden or drop out. That gives rise to the familiar Mormon cliche that there are no fence sitters in the mission field. You are either in or out. But some of the UT saints I observed–many of whom were grad students planning on heading back west when they finished school–didn’t want to do the extra work and couldn’t drop out, because they needed temple recommends for various family reasons. These saints were a constant thorn in the side of the bishopric. It did not help matters that they also asserted, as you note, they knew how the church was “really” run, or invoked their pioneer heritage to imply that they were “more Mormon” than their convert counterparts.

    As to your second point, there is a HUGE difference between agreeing to pay 10% off the top and actually paying it. Given how quickly many investigators progress to baptism, I submit that lots of converts have absolutely no clue what they are really in for. Indeed, within Mormonism it seems as though baptism is the first step toward conversion and not its culmination.

  11. As a convert, I dont think Rick’s version of what true committment makes any sense. Looks like rick wishes that the Church be some kind of a cult-like organisation, where if a member is unable to pay the 10%, he or she is immediately deemed not Templeworthy, and not a true member. And yes, Rick, there are people who have to balance work, career, family, health issues etc, and who cant act like the “mormon ideal” that you posit. So, should folks like me be kicked out of the Church? I sure hope that it isnt you making Church policy!!!!!

  12. Seth Rogers says:

    I like being a Mormon because it makes me feel “tougher” than all the “moral sissies” populating modern America.

    I realize that’s grossly unfair and pig-headed. But if I’m really being honest with myself … yeah, that’s pretty-much it.

  13. Is a strict vegan who fastidiously recycles, owns a Prius, and rides his bike to work when it isn’t raining as morally tough as the typical active Mormon?

  14. Justin H says:

    Skippy: No. Recycle your Prius and start riding your bike in the rain, and then we’ll talk…

    Just kidding of course. I will pay the 10%, but no way am I giving up the things I like to eat.

    Like Steve, my first impulse is to say that we don’t fit the economic model; to say no, I’m certainly not a (mostly) orthopractic (is that a word) Mormon because of any rational choice.

    But I get great pleasure out of “be[ing] with my fellow saints and … soak[ing] in the spirit of our religion.” Further, I enjoy the social benefits of a (reasonably) secure identity based in the LDS heritage into which I was born.

    So maybe it is all about the immediate pay-off.