Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Contemporary Crisis in Mormon Faith and Its Social Bases

Mormons are leaving the LDS Church in record numbers, according to recent press coverage. Though much of the story attributes the inactivity or loss of members to the internet and their learning historical and other material that contradicts their ideas of Mormonism, there is undoubtedly much more to the story. 

While I cannot write an blogpost based on a social science study of disaffection, for which I refer you to the work in process of Jason Singh and E. Marshall Brooks, I can speak to the issue as an anthropologist who studies religion and particularly Mormonism.  

I am skeptical of the internet as the primary cause of this change. From Tahrir Square to this loss of faith the internet is blamed for all kinds of social movement and breakdowns in authority. While it undoubtedly plays a role, as scholar after scholar points out, it is more hyped that an adequate cause. 

In the Mormon story, there is a telling mediating factor. People claim that Latter-day Saints are finding out things on the internet that run counter to ideas on which they built their faith. Laurie Goodstein writes, in the New York Times, "that people find on the internet things that contradict[... ]the church’s history and teachings.”

She notes that Hans Mattsson, once an Area Authority, dismissed these concerns when members brought them to him at first. Then he found out that there was evidence Joseph Smith engaged in polygamy with women as young as fourteen. This made him doubt. 

On the internet are found things that contradict what the LDS Church teaches about itself on which people have built faith.  This notion intrigues me.  It has several parts: 1) building faith, 2) Church teachings, and 3) contradiction.  

I want to start with the notion of Church teachings.  While it is hard to know exactly what people are referring to here, it is worthwhile noting that in the broader Mormon community there are few issues, if any, that have not been ventilated including Joseph Smith\s polygamy. Information is there, not only on the internet, but within the Latter-day Saint Community, and yet there are people who continue to have faith in Mormonism, and even the Church.  

As a result, I do not think the real issue is with details, such as Joseph Smith’s polygamy or even the age of some of his partners, etc. Rather it is an issue of why people do not know about these things when they have been discussed for a long time now in LDS networks. 

The question might be rephrased to say why have official Church teachings, despite the writings of a broader Latter-day Saint community, not represented things that are troublesome and found ways to build faith with them. 

The answer may lie, in part, in two things: 1) an idea of “faith promoting” or “faithful” history and gospel discussion, and 2) the development of Correlation along with the increased power of the Church Office Building bureaucracy (as Daymon Smith analyzes it). 

The first notion, expounded by Elder Boyd K. Packer and many other people roughly requires that things that do not support the story of Mormonism, in the way they understand it, should be brushed aside. Another notion often accompanies it, especially in the writings of Elder Packer, that faith is primarily a matter of inner commitment and that religious discourse and teaching should be about expressing that commitment in words like “I know ... it is true.” rather than through discussion or weighing of ideas and evidence.

An inner commitment builds on a notion of individualism akin to that of the Sheilaism described by Robert Bellah. It sees communities, and Churches, as built from individual commitment and then hides from itself and others the social fields and forces that enable and support an apparent inner commitment.

Elder Packer et. al following this notion this transformed Mormonism in lock step with the social transformations of American suburban life, i.e. a faulty focus on individual commitment and character, such as those Bellah discussed.  

Of course, it is not fair to lay all the blame at the feet of this idea. Mormons left the villages that were the historical home of a strong Mormonism and moved to suburbia, in the process adopting the values and norms of suburbia. However, initially they maintained their Mormonism as a demanding community which absorbed most of their time and energy.  

However, the reduction of Mormon life to a three hour block on Sundays and scant activity during the week, in order to focus on the nuclear family, broke the community strength that was building a strong enclave of Latter-day Saints, for one of individuals making contractual, I mean faith commitment, to the Church and using the nuclear family as the primary place for nourishing this faith.  

Just as that nuclear family is breaking down in the face of contemporary economic life, so too it as a social organization in which a strong commitment to Mormonism could be forged has fallen apart and there is precious little community any more to give cohesion to the people and avoid a larger crisis of loss of commitment.  

The second thing mentioned above, Correlation, arises in relationship to this. Correlation, with its control over materials and the wording and ideas contained within them was driven by norms that can loosely fit under the “faith promoting” category, although awkwardly so.  

For me, though, that seems less the issue than does the substitution of hierarchy and power from above, in a reworking of the notion and relations of priesthood leadership.  Importantly, Correlation was part of a power grab and bureaucratization of the Church, following the patterns of the military and the modern corporation.  This centralized power and administration replaced most of the social organization--i.e. the former horizontal life of densely integrated wards and stakes--for command directed power relationships.  

This pattern seemed to fit well with the notions of individual commitment and character as base. But it destroyed any kind of religious society that could have absorbed the shocks.  In the process “Church teachings” as an idea, around which strong notions of obedience and non-critical discussion were promoted, came down the lines of power and replaced the folk-wisdom and the complexity of non-credal Mormon religious practice and belief. 

In the process of consolidating this (which including censoring of historians and intellectuals, as well as persons with ideas that seemed contrary) the Church lost from its official inside the very people and social ties that were processing and grasping the complexities of the Mormon story.  An inside of faith and propriety was constructed against an outside of heterodoxy and problems. 

That these complexities found their place in the internet is no surprise.  They already were in libraries and journals.  To return to the New York Times article, the problem is less the existence of this information, than the circling of wagons of “orthodoxy” through Church Office Building power and Correlation built on a weak basis of individual commitment.  

As my grandmother, who immigrated from England to the US for the Chruch would say “you make your bed, you lie in it.” The Church is now experiencing the predictable effects of the “reformations” of its mid to late twentieth century self.  

I hope that, instead of simply focusing on information that seems to run counter to Church teachings, discussion on loss of members will also include a consideration of the mistakes made in the twentieth century, often for very good reasons, and rethink how to build a solid community of Latter-day Saints, rather than simply a body of individuals with a testimony. 


  1. Is it possible that part of what is leading so many people to point to the internet as the cause of disaffiliation (as opposed to merely a vehicle for information) is the community that accompanies the information people are finding? As you rightly point out, the historical information itself was available long before the current membership crisis. Could it be that the vacuum left by the disintegrating horizontal social structures (wards, stakes, Mormon enclaves) is being filled through online communities in which people are reconnecting to "the folk-wisdom and the complexity of non-credal Mormon religious practice and belief"? If it's true that what the Church calls a "testimony" is actually the product of social forces*, then as these social forces are supplanted by alternative online communities, the individual no longer feels the individual commitment to the organization, but rather to a new community. After all, the membership crisis came not after the creation of the internet (and ready access to the historical information), but the proliferation of online social networks.

    *The church seems to recognize the pivotal role of social forces in organizational commitment, as least when talking about bringing in new people. The formal missionary program emphasizes the importance of teaching investigators with members present, in members' homes if possible, and having members sit with investigators at church. The oft repeated formula for success in retention of new members is that they need 3 things: a friend, a responsibility, and to be nourished by the word of God. The first two explicitly acknowledge the power of social forces and obligations. When the third is discussed in conference talks, this "nourishing" is always (as far as my quick scan revealed) performed in a social context: quorum meetings, Relief Society, Sunday School, etc.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that the community is critical and strongly feel that belief, including a testimony, is built on social bases and without those it is very unstable.

  2. Great post, Prof. Knowlton. I think your last paragraph is representative of the feeling among the circles of disenfranchised and/or uncorrelated Mormons.
    (This is Wade--I took Anth 101-G Spring 2012).

  3. Hi Wade. How are you. It is nice to hear a bit from you. I hope all is well with you. Thank you for your comment.

  4. I'm currently writing a couple of articles to be submitted for peer review about a qualitative study I did of people who have left mormonism and become atheist and/or agnostic since the mid-Aughts. I'm a sociologist working in the Grounded Theory tradition for qualitative symbolic interaction.

    You may be interested to know that among my informants, none of them were disaffected because of the internet. Rather, they turned to the internet to seek answers to questions they already had. Further, they turned to the internet for community, that is, to find people who had similar questions, problems, and negative experiences within Mormonism.

    The two articles I've been working on the past couple years from my data treat the pattern that I found people followed in their journey's to "unbelief"; and the other examines an unexpected aspect of disaffection from mormonism, which is the role that emotions played in the disaffection and then the necessity of reframing emotions post-Mormonism. My work is qualitative and descriptive, so doesn't have any power to predict people's experiences, but the patterns that emerged from the data were fascinating and I hope will lead in the future to better understanding of not only Mormonism but also other non-tradiitonal/alternative/new religious movements and how their adherents are both kept within the bounds of the religious community and the processes they go through when leaving.

    J. Todd Ormsbee

  5. Fascinating, Todd. Thanks for sharing this with me. I am pleased to know of your work. Have you presented this at any professional meetings? I would love to know more.

  6. David, I'm so glad to see you comment on this, particularly given your personal experience, role, and losses since '93.

    I completely agree that faith crises and mass disillusionment have been overly simplistically attributed to "the internet" as the culprit or cause. There are multiple causes, and the internet is secondary.

    A primary cause is simply our thirst for knowledge and understanding about life, accompanied by shifts or collapses of our paradigm(s)- the psyche's need to learn, individuate. We evaluate our beliefs via new information ongoing, or take refuge in our beliefs, for a time. Also, the group or cultural psyche has a collective trajectory, voiced in public discourses.

    I agree that troubling info about the Church has been around for decades, readily available in many forms.

    I also agree that a more central cause of fallout is an erosion of sense of community due to the insider-outsider dichotomy of the early '90s, resulting from church disciplines (i.e. yours and mine). I agree that those disciplined were deeply or intensely "processing and grasping the complexities of the Mormon story."

    Yet, the negative story that emerged from 1993 wasn't objective or accurate, it was born of fear, anxiety, reaction, supposition and media hype. It was one-sided - we didn't have a dialogue with input from both sides.

    I agree that rhetoric from Church leaders pre-2000 pushed conformity while discouraging public disagreement. Yet that rhetoric wasn't simple or unitary, it was complex, and included opposite suggestions as well -- about personal conviction, authenticity and actualization. The cautionary or condemnatory language was perhaps more intense, because it was negative and personal.

    Yet as I've gone back and revisited talks from the past, I've often been surprised by the presence of positive or empowering or nuanced messages coexisting along with warnings and denouncements.

    The Church focus on personal or inner knowledge didn't strike me as "individualism" - which is a fascinating reading - but as spiritual epistemology. Yet this was accompanied by talk about social responsibility - relationships with God and family and church. The lay church has an uncommon emphasis on community.

    What was indeed fractured and worsened via 20 years of fallout was the sense of community once held by us, the liberals and feminists.

    Anyway, I appreciate and resonate with your deeper reading of the situation, it's a refreshing perspective these days.

    -Maxine H.

    1. Hi Maxine. It is always wonderful to converse with you. Your additions and critique are good. You are right that the individualism is far more complex. I too have looked at it in General Authority discourse and, while they do speak to individualism, they also speak to a self-lessness that is a movement beyond individualism. I still will stand by what I wrote in the post, but also would love to discuss this more and think it through. You are always thoughtful and stimulating.

    2. Yes, they speak a lot about selflessness, in some ways spiritual and in other ways disempowering, but I was thinking more about talk of one-ness, unity, community ala the body of Christ... always your fan, M

  7. Just curious if you are aware of quantitative evidence that Mormons are leaving their faith in higher numbers than they have in the past.

    1. Hi. As I recall there is some quantitative evidence, as well as lots of qualitative. The people to ask about the quantitative data are Rick Phillips and Ryan Cragun. You could also pose the question on this page

  8. In regards to the effect of the internet on the more recent up-tick in LDS members leaving their church, could seeing so much chatter give the doubter a sense of not being alone? I left the LDS church in the wake of the 1993 excommunications and was amazed that more people did not do the same. It wasn't the actions of the the LDS leadership that troubled me as much as my interactions with other Mormons when I discussed the situation with them just afterwards. Most didn't even know that anything had happened and when I told them about those that had been "cut-off" the attitude was "well, then they deserved it." I felt very isolated and had to acknowledge that while the LDS church is not a democracy, the majority of the members had a right to believe as they did and if I didn't agree, it was I who should leave. Today, the internet provides those going through a crisis of faith the reassurance that they are not as isolated as I once felt and that there are others they can share their concerns with without fear of recrimination. If the internet is a factor, I suspect it is more along those lines than just the raw data and analysis that as you point out was previously available in less public repositories.

    1. These are excellent points Michael, so true that the internet has given companionship, context and community to those who suffer doubt, disillusionment, alienation, and isolation in their relationship to the church. Perhaps it doesn't create disillusionment, but gives it a home. I am sorry for the negative effects of '93 on your life, every individual story haunts me. I honor your integrity. I hope your path has led you where you want to be. - Maxine

    2. Thanks Maxine. I do not have any regrets about leaving the LDS Church. I became a Unitarian Universalist and think I always was one just didn't know it! LOL in my travels I tend to find other post-Mormons who took the same path...about one or two per UU congregation. I am glad things ultimately worked out well for you as well Mike.

  9. Hmmm.... I don't have as much data as you, but my experience and the experience of two dozen of my friends in this area who were once active feels different.

    Yes, you could find troubling info in the past but the people who did were largely scholars like you and Maxine. Before a few years ago, we had to be determined, go to a library, read heavy things like The Journal of Discourses, and if we had doubts we couldn't talk about them with anyone.

    I was a very active Bishop, Elder's Quorum President, High Councilman, etc., who loved my stake and the people in it. I can't imagine feeling a stronger sense of community because I was on scout trips, at girl's camp, at weddings, missionary homecomings, firesides, stake plays, and loved it all.

    But our teen-aged children now Google words like Mormon during seminary and the #3 result is Recovery From Mormonism. So they come home and ask, hey dad (Bishop), do you know anything about the Book of Abraham papyrus? And I respond, Hmmm, that isn't in the handbook, let me do a little research on that. And now I don't have to go to the library anymore and find some scholarly work.

    Now you download a podcast from John Dehlin on your iPhone and listen to Hans Mattsson and Tom Philips while jogging down the boulevard. And you hear things you never heard before no matter how much research you did, like about second endowments.

    Like Maxine, I've had nothing but love and support from our stake since my discovery of these things on the Internet, so they've turned a few of the best scholars in our stake loose on me to say you can't believe everything you read on the Internet. But I'm finding they didn't know about these things either, even the Institute Directors who have tried to help. That's why Hans Mattson's story resonated with me, because it was exactly like mine and my now ex-Mormon friends in our area.