In the comments to Dave’s post discussing Joanna Brooks’s discussion of myths about Mormonism, the conversation is getting hung up on whether her citation of 14.1 million members is disingenuous[fn1] or not.
That discussion, I believe, misses the point.[fn2] Why?
Baseline. First, because 14.1 million is as good a number as any. Sure, in a real discussion of how many Mormons there are, you need to do a whole lot more work to define what you mean by “Mormon.”[fn3] There are some areas that are clear: for example, it’s hard to argue that a person who has been baptize in the LDS church, attends church every Sunday, and self-identifies as Mormon should not be counted as a Mormon. It’s also easy to say that a person who grew up in a devout Catholic home, who has never met a Mormon, been to a Mormon church, or heard of Stone and Parker’s Book of Mormon musical, and who, moreover, self-identifies as Catholic, shouldn’t be counted among Mormons.
But somewhere in between, whom to count becomes murky. What about the person who was baptized, doesn’t go to any church, but self-identifies as Mormon? What about the person who has never been baptized, but goes to church every week and mans the barbecue at the the ward’s annual picnic? Figuring out the grey area certainly belongs in a discussion of how many Mormons there are, but it didn’t really fit in Brooks’s post.
Common Journalistic Practice. It’s not just Brooks citing the 14 million number. A quick Google News search[fn4] finds that the 14-million number is used by a wide array of journalists, many of whom don’t appear to have much to do with the Church, and some of whom appear not to be really big fans.
Moreover, the use of a more inclusive number seems to be common among religions. News coverage I can find of the Catholic church mentions something over a billion Catholics. I don’t know the baseline that they’re using, but I suspect that not all of those billion+ Catholics are practicing.[fn5]
It Doesn’t Matter. I assume that Mormons who boast about the 14.1 million number do so in order to show how big we are.[fn6] And I assume that detractors of the Church want to knock the number down in order to show that we’re not so big.[fn7]
But really, what’s the difference between 14.1 million and, say, 2.82 million?[fn8] There are, as of my writing, just under 7 billion people alive. That means that, if we believe that there are 14.1 million Mormons, Mormons make up about 0.2% of the world’s population. If, instead, we go with 2.82 million, Mormons make up about 0.03% of the world’s population, a difference of 0.17 percentage points. That is, while 14.1 million sounds like a lot (and, frankly, 2.82 million still sounds like a lot), neither is a large number in comparison with the set of living people and, in relative terms, there is a very small difference between the two.
This Discussion Would Have Totally Gotten in the Way of What Brooks Was Discussing. Look, we’re talking a blog post here. My discussion of the 14.1 million number is probably about as long as her entire post.[fn9] All this for a tangential point that very few people are interested in. We all know that not every person who belongs to a church participates. Not every person who belongs to a political party is truly interested in politics. Heck, not everybody who registers for my class attends on a regular basis.
Like I said, there’s a place for this discussion. It’s interesting as a matter of resource allocation, and as a matter of determining how well we do bringing people to Christ (or drawing them away from Him, if you’re not a fan of my belief system). And we all want to feel like we’re part of a larger group. But, at the same time, we need to be able to use shorthand to communicate some ideas. And 14.1 million seems like as good a shorthand as any.
[fn1] “Dishonest” would probably better reflect the discussion, but I enjoy any chance I get to use the word “disingenuous,” so I’ll stick with that.
[fn2] Note that I am not arguing that this isn’t a conversation worth having; I’m merely arguing that it was not the conversation Ms. Brooks was having and, moreover, that it would have been clunky, unnecessary, and distracting in the context she was making the argument. 14.1 million is a perfectly acceptable baseline count and, based on the context and thrust of her post, and on what appears to be general journalistic practice, was not distracting or dishonest.
[fn3] I don’t really mean the debate over whether fundamentalist Mormons should be considered Mormon, either. That’s a whole different issue.
[fn4] My search results are here, but I assume that the results will change over time. I also have to say, I don’t think the search is necessarily representative, because Brooks’s post has been reprinted a number of places, so I searched for “14 million Mormons” rather than 14.1 million to try to cut down the number of times I got a reprint of her post.
[fn5] In fact, it would appear that the same discussion happens in Catholic circles.
[fn6] Brooks, on the other hand, was using it for entirely different purposes.
[fn7] I realize that the assumptions may not be accurate, at least as respects you personally, so I’m perfectly willing to concede that I’m wrong about these assumptions. But I’ll bet that both are true for some not-insignificant portion people who care about the number of Mormons.
[fn8] Remember, I said, in order to figure out how many Mormons there are, we have to figure out what counts as a Mormon and how many people fit in that category. But I don’t want to do that work, so I’m going to assume that, once we’ve agreed on our definitions, we discover that 20% of the 14.1 million people qualify.
[fn9] Probably longer, if you include footnotes.