Friday, April 15, 2011

How the Future Church Could Prevent the Exodus of its Members

While we were attending the Mormon Stories conference in NYC (held the day after watching The Book of Mormon Musical on it's opening weekend) John Dehlin asked the group what the church could do to hold onto more of its members, while at the same time maintaining its tithing income.

I assume the tithing criteria is included because the church wouldn't want to make any changes that would threaten the billions of dollars it earns in tax-free tithing donations. A fair assumption. It is also assumed there that a mass exodus of church membership is occurring. Good statistics are not readily available (since the church would not want this to be known) but sociologists Armand Mauss estimates that 50% of US converts are no longer active within one year and 75% of foreign converts are inactive within one year of baptism. And it's not just converts who are leaving. Many lifelong faithful members are leaving after becoming disaffected with the LDS church for various reasons related to church history, church doctrine, and current church practice.

I've been thinking about the question John asked, and here are some of my suggestions. I am, of course, under no delusion that the church is likely to do anything I suggest. But wouldn't it be nice? Here's to wishful thinking:

1. Widen the Umbrella
Use a big tent approach with church membership. Stop making people who are not white, conservative, republican, straight, and orthodox feel so alienated. Allow for a greater inclusive body of members: people who are liberal or take a metaphorical approach to doctrine or scriptural texts. Allow cafeteria Mormons to take part and speak their mind. There is nothing wrong with picking and choosing which religious ideas make sense to you. Every Mormons does it since belief is not something you can make yourself do: I can't make myself believe something if all the evidence and logic contradicts it. Similarly, Mormons can't make themselves believe in half the crazy stuff the Bible condones (slavery, rape, genocide, death penalty for adultery or homosexuality) or the prohibits (eating lobsters).

2. Come to Terms with Church History 
I'm talking about the real history. Let's be open and honest about it. Stop making Joseph Smith a monogamous mythical demigod who did nothing worse than engage in "levity" and "unbecoming" behavior as an adolescent.  Talk about magic peep-stones.  Talk about mummies and papyrus and the invented Book of Abraham translation of them. Talk about polygamy. Talk about the real reason Joseph was murdered was not because he was persecuted for his faith, but because he tried to stop the truth of his marital fecundity from coming to light.  Stop pretending that the Book of Mormon is literal history.  There is not a shred of any scientific evidence to support it, and a mountain of evidence to refute it. Let's just stop emphasizing this idea and let people find value in their own interpretation of the textual source. Does it really matter if we believe in gold plates and anachronistic iron age, sword wielding, white Hebrew Native Americans that rode pre-Columbian horses and used imaginary cumons and cureloms as beast of burden? Or could we just think that a BOM character named King Benjamin said a lot of universal truths about serving other people?

These truth claims, and many others, are simply not sustainable in our information age. The truth is just too readily available in print or online. People will continue to access it, read it, and believe it because it is much more probable than the made up history the church presents as fact. If the church was just open and honest about its history, then people wouldn't feel duped by learning the truth.

The church would never do this sudden history change all at once. It would need to happen gradually so as not to upset its tithing contributing base. But they could introduce the ideas slowly in Conference talks and Ensign articles. If there is one thing Mormons do well, it is following the prophet and leaders. Just have the prophet tell people the truth, in a gradual manner, and I'm sure Mormons would be square about their history within the rising generation (the one that is suppose to meet Jesus at the 2nd coming anyway).

3. Stop the Prophet Worship
To be fair, no active LDS member would admit that they worship Joseph Smith or Thomas S. Monson. But they would never criticize them. They would never disagree with something they taught (or at least voice their disagreement). They would never say - after hearing President Monson say that Mormons should get married even sooner - "Oh, that's just his opinion. I don't have to agree." In short, they would never say that what the leaders teach them the pulpit or Ensign is just human, fallible, opinion (and sometimes nonsense).

But, really, we need to be able to disagree with our leaders if we are to hold onto the people who do disagree (and there is so much to disagree with these days of Prop 8 and City Creek Center). And how can members disagree with what leaders say if they continue to pretend to get their ideas from revelation?  However, if leaders were honest about the fact that they get their ideas just like everybody else - that they teach their opinions, and that they teach things that are sometimes wrong - then members would start thinking for themselves, they would start disagreeing from time to time, leaders would be held accountable for mistakes they teach, and (importantly) people would stop leaving the church as readily.

Why wouldn't they leave? Well, I'm a member of the military. I know that military leaders get things wrong all the time. It doesn't bother me so much, since they don't pretend to get their occasionally bird-brained ideas from God. I realize that mistakes are going to be made all the time; in fact, I expect them to be made. I don't question their integrity and honesty when they make a mistake if they can apologize and try to correct it. But our church leaders don't do that. Instead they obfuscate, ignore, or rationalize past and present mistakes because they cannot admit they are just as fallible in what they teach us as anybody else is.

4. Make Religion Personal, Not Universal
The church needs to stop making its religion applicable to every human being who has ever lived, is living, or will yet be born. Instead, religion should be applicable only to the believer. In the philosophy of William James, religion should be practical and useful. If it is useful, it doesn't mean it's true - it just means that it's useful. There are lots of reasons that religion can be helpful: it helps people find meaning and purpose in an apparently purposeless universe. It helps people deal with the ubiquitous challenges of life. It helps people come to terms with (or at least deny) death. It helps people form communities of friendship and support. All this is great. People can find these same things without religion, but religion is very good at these things, and if it works for people, then I say use it.

But it doesn't mean that the religion that works for you is applicable to everyone else. It doesn't mean that we have to ostracize people who are raised in the church but then change their mind about its validity. It doesn't mean we have to convert everybody living and baptize everybody who is dead. And it certainly doesn't mean it's the one true church. It just means that it works for you. That's great. Let's just keep it that way by keeping it to yourself. Why feel the need to convert everybody else? The church will not go under if it stops proselytizing. Other churches don't proselytize and they have been around a lot longer than Mormonism. Most Mormon converts don't stick around for too long anyway. Maybe that is why President Monson is worried about all the unmarried who could be getting married younger and having more Mormon babies? They tend to stick around since they are socialized in the church.

5. Stop Using God to Explain What We Already Know About Nature
When I learned about evolution, and compared it with what the Bible, the Pearl of Great Price, and modern LDS leaders have taught about it, it caused my first "crisis of faith." This was totally unnecessary. If religions would just stop teaching that God created everything, then I would have no reason to doubt God when I discovered the facts of astronomy and biology during my education.

Stephen J. Gould wrote about NOMA, or the non-overlaping magisterium of religion and science. Whether or not it's a good idea in principle, I will admit that it helps keep the peace between religion and science. Religion sticks to religion, which I would characterize as comprising a search for personal meaning, purpose, values, spirituality, and forming religious community, while science continues to use its methods of research to explain the natural world around us, and within us.  If science and religion could just live and operate within their scope of practice, they would get along a lot better.

The problem comes when one strays into the other's territory. For example, when atheist scientists use a scientific truth to bash a religious idea (even if they are right and the religionist may need to be roughed up a little), it hurts religious sensibilities and just makes them hate science all the more. On the other hand, when religions cling to outdated and disproved notions of religious myth (i.e. creation myths, mind-spirit duality, or religious notions of consciousness and free-will) and refuse to yield ground to scientific explanations of nature, then religion is trespassing on sciences turf.

Scientists are not out to disprove religion. That's not why they get PhD's and devote their lives to the advancement of human understanding and knowledge. But when they discover something that contradicts what religions teach, they shouldn't back down either. And religion shouldn't get in the way.

Religious notions were the first attempt by man to explain the natural world around us, with all the apparent miracles within it.  Science is many things, but it is not intuitive in the same way religious myths sometimes are.  Ideas like the origin of the universe, the earth, animals, and man use to escape our human understanding. Religious myth was our best initial attempt to explain these mysteries. But now, through the advent of science over just the past few hundred years, we have better answers based on empiric observation, a mountain of facts, and supportive evidence that continues to pile up.

If religion continues to create "God in the Gap" arguments to explain nature, and scientists continue to explain these mysteries away by naturalistic means, then where does God go? Why is God needed? What does God do? God soon becomes a God who has nothing to do. So instead, what religion needs to do is let science do its thing, remove God from the natural world, and instead put God firmly within the safe and unfalsifiable realm of the supernatural where scientists don't go. It may still be improbable, but at least it's non-refutable, and therefore possible to retain faith in the idea of God.

So, in short, in the future the church could adopt a "big tent" philosophy for church membership, be honest about its history, focus on the personal and practical aspects of faith, and back away from using religion to explain natural phenomena that science does a much better job at explaining anyway. If the church did this, it could prevent the current exodus of people leaving the church for these very reasons. it will take some growing pains. But this is what young religions do. They evolve. The church has done big changes in the past and survived. I have no doubt it will be around in the future too - after some evolutionary changes have taken place.


  1. I'm no mormon, and I'm not here to defend their ideas or beliefs but as a believer in God, I question how you can say scientifically it is proven that creation did not occur?

    My undergrad is in Biology so I'm with you on the science, but there's no actual evidence to say that creation didn't occur either..

    Sure those who say the earth is only 6,000 years old need to wake up and realize that isn't true, but based off that alone there is no evidence that every animal or organism that exists came from the same beginning and evolved into what is today. That's fallible logic. I'm not saying evolution did not occur, but there is no proof that we came from chimpanzees and they came from something less and etc etc.. We all may share similar DNA structure at some point, but who's to say that through creation, there were only so many ways God thought of creating us. And had to draw upon similar ideas and creations? Deep concept but to completely dismiss any of those notions is misguiding as well. Science is also limited to what we know, and to draw conclusions of what we "think" isn't accurate either. So to say science has disproved anything other than some few peoples beliefs of the age of existence doesn't mean science has disproved creationism.

  2. Science does not prove that Creationism did not occur. It goes about explaining, in natural terms, how we did get here. No God is necessary to explain our origins. As a biology major in college, I'm surprised that you have reservations about evolution. As Theodosius Dobzhanski said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

    I'd pull out those biology textbooks and read them again. Other good popular books on the subject of evolution are:

    The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
    Why Evolution is True by Jerry Coyne
    The Greatest Show on Earth and The Blind Watchmaker by Richard Dawkins
    and Only A Theory by Kenneth Miller (who is also Catholic and one of the most persuasive authors for doubting Thomas's)

  3. I like this list. I would add that the Church could do even more charitable stuff with its buckets of cash and be more transparent in how said cash is used.

    I don't think the second item will EVER happen as long as Boyd K Packer (“Some things that are true are not very useful”!) is alive.

  4. Mera - I agree that the lack of transparency about the billions of tax-free dollars the church receives in tithing/donations, is very troubling. I think financial transparency is less likely than their honesty about Church history. With regard to it's history, there are some signs in the right direction with the new multivolume Joseph Smith Papers project under Elder Jensen as Church Historian.