Category: Liberal Arts

Economics – Law – Philosophy – etc.

Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, published Dead Man Walking in 1993. I am just finishing the book, which reinforces my long-held disdain for the death penalty. I have not seen the movie, but the book is a powerful accounting of Sister Helen’s experiences counseling death-row inmates in Louisiana.

Evans-Pritchard: Mormonism and Theories of Religion VI

E. E. Evans-Pritchard is one of the most important anthropologists of the last century. Unlike many of his predecessors (and contemporaries), he actually went to live with the people he studied and meticulously detailed their beliefs and practices. If he teaches us nothing else, it is that close research is vital to understanding religion.

Eliade: Mormonism and Theories of Religion V

Unlike the other thinkers we have reviewed so far, Mircea Eliade was a religious person himself. Perhaps for this reason his sympathetic approach to religion has been extremely well accepted by Mormon scholars. When reading his books for the first time, I couldn’t help but feel a strong kinship with him, as if his interpretation of religion was written about Mormonism itself. I once advocated in an EQ lesson that Eliade was essential reading for all Mormons.

Illegal Work and the Minimum Wage

Last Saturday my advisor informed me that he never wanted to read my dissertation again, which was his way of saying he was ready to sign off. So I thought I would amuse everyone (well, me anyway) with a very brief recap of my findings. Let me assure you that there is no Mormon angle to this work, so if you are offended by the secular, feel free to move on.

Marx: Mormonism and Theories of Religion IV

My titles were too long and hard to distinguish in the “Recent Comments” section, so I have switched the order around. The next theory in this series is that of Marx, just in time for the lifting of the ban on socialism! Like the others, Marx’s theory is reductionist. As a former Marxist myself, I find this particular kind of reductionism unpersuasive. However, this theory of religion became more than just a theory. For a good part of the 20th century a huge portion of the earth’s population subscribed to this theory. For this reason alone it derserves to be seriously considered.

Mormonism and Theories of Religion III: Durkheim

This follows up on the previous entries in this series here and here. Emile Durkheim is one of the most important founders of modern sociology. He is also one of the most important figures in the study of religion. Like Tylor, Frazer, and Freud, his theory of religion is also reductionist. It seeks to explain religion by pointing to something other than religion itself.

Mormonism and Theories of Religion II: Freud

This is the second installment in this series, begun here. Freud has had a huge impact on thought in the 20th century. He was a truly revolutionary thinker, to such an extent that the statement “We are all Freudians now” certainly rings true. Among the many subjects he treated, religion was a particular interest for him. He dealt with it in three books, Totem and Taboo, Future of an Illusion, and Moses and Monotheism.

Mormonism and Quetzalcoatl in Court

While we’re on the topic of court decisions about the church, it’s always fun to mention the Ninth Circuit’s ruling in Alvarado v. City of San Jose, 94 F. 3d 1223 (1996). The plaintiffs in that case sought to enjoin the installation (and later, force the removal) of a Quetzalcoatl statue, on the grounds that, inter alia, it violated the California Constitution because it promoted Mormon beliefs. The court dismissed the claim, noting: While Mormons are clearly a recognized religious group, the evidence presented by the plaintiffs does not support a First Amendment argument. The writings suggest that, according to certain Mormons, ancient worshippers of Quetzalcoatl were in fact worshipping Christ. Historically, Mormon missionaries taught that Christ had revealed himself to native Mesoamericans in the form of Quetzalcoatl or the Plumed Serpent long before he appeared to man in the human form known to Christians. This attribution of Christian or Christ-like qualities to ancient religious symbols and practices does not,…

The Book of Mormon in Court

I think that most people know that passages from the Bible pop up from time to time in judicial opinions. For example, many old common law rules turned on the distinction between acts that were malum in se (that is wrong in and of themselves) and malum prohibitum (that is wrong simply because they are legally proscribed). The Ten Commandments were regularly used as a touchstone in making this distinction. The question presents itself: What sort of a life – if any – has the Book of Mormon led in the pages of the court reporters?

Mormonism and Theories of Religion: Tylor and Frazer

As Nate mentioned, I am starting my doctorate in Religious Studies this fall. In my first semester I will take a required seminar for new doctoral students Contemporary Issues in the Theory of Religion. We were given some summer reading as a preparation for this course, which included the introductory book on the subject, Seven Theories of Religion, by Daniel L. Pals. He recognizes, and I concur, that these are not all of the theories, and some important thinkers are overlooked, but seven does sound like a nice round(ish) number.

“On Equal Grounds”

The story of Korihor in Alma 30 contains many lessons for the modern audience. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most interesting part of the chapter to me is the discussion of law in verses 7-11. In particular, this discussion is bookended by the concept of equality: 7. “Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds.” 12. “… Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds.” In an earlier post, Jim Faulconer asked a question that I would like to revisit here: What does it mean to be “on equal grounds”?

UofU and Theatre Student Settle

Christina Axson-Flynn’s lawsuit against the University of Utah garnered lots of attention, but I am not sure that we have discussed it here. The events took place in 1998, and revolve around Axson-Flynn’s experience in the University of Utah’s Actor Training Program (ATP). When she refused to use vulgar and profane language, her instructors pressured her to “get over it.” In the face of her refusal to change her views, the instructors escalated the pressure, and she ultimately decided to leave the program. In the wake of her withdrawal, she sued the University and her instructors for violating her First Amendment right to refrain from speaking and for violating her free exercise rights under the First Amendment. After losing both claims on the defendant’s motion for summary judgment in the U.S. District Court, Axson-Flynn won a double reversal at the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals. This entitled Axson-Flynn to pursue the lawsuit in the District Court, but earlier this week,…

Spirituality & Fundamenatlism II

Hi, sorry to have dropped out for a few days (what do you call a guest blogger who doesn’t blog?). A friend from the philosophy department has been helping me (actually, I’ve been helping him) work on a home construction project that is taking longer than expected (proving, I suppose, that between the two of them, law and philosophy can confuse pretty much anything). I enjoyed the comments. Some thematic responses.

Individual responsibility?

Frank McIntyre says “I am only responsible for that part of me that is eternally me.” Adam Greenwood agrees and wonders how to makes sense of that claim in light of the teaching that God oversees everything and brings about his purposes. Kristine Haglund implicitly assumes, I think, that despair, acedia, etc. are really individual psychological disorders because, like Frank and Adam, she assumes that individuals are the basic units, the units at which responsibility occurs. Of course that assumption is the norm. But why should we believe it is true?

Spirituality & Fundamentalism

Hello all, and thanks for Jim’s warm introduction and Lyle’s and Gordon’s welcomes. To get started, let me summarize some recent research I’ve done on current trends in the sociology of religion, and then pose some questions.

The Anti-Nephi-Lehite Puzzle

In the rather endless recent comments on war, torture, and politics, both Rob and Dan have made variations on the claim that it is better to suffer death rather than commit certain sorts of moral wrongs. Rob’s claim to me is more interesting, because as a pacifist he seems to claim that it is better to be killed rather than kill another. Dan and Rob, are of course, free to object that I am putting words in their mouths (which is probably correct), however, the basic proposition raises an interesting question: Why might killing be worse than death?

Constitutional Turnabout

According to reports this week, the leadership of the United States Senate is currently considering whether to bring to a vote a proposed constitutional amendment to define the nature of marriage. There is widespread agreement that the proposal lacks the necessary votes to pass, suggesting that the vote is primarily intended to make a political issue of the proposed amendment’s subject matter during an election year. Still, many constituencies remain highly exercised over what they perceive to be the necessity of such an amendment to resolve the matter of single-sex marriage. Curiously, these constituencies seem largely to be the same as those that vehemently opposed the passage of a different constitutional amendment — the Equal Rights Amendment — some thirty years ago. At the time, opponents of the Equal Rights Amendment claimed that use of the constitutional amendment process to address the purposes of the proposed amendment was both unnecessary and unwise

Twelve Differences Between Taxation and Robbery

This is a short primer on the differences between taxation and robbery. At times these two phenomena are sufficiently difficult to differentiate that perhaps such a discussion will be helpful. Feel free to append your own differences to the dozen provided: 1. Taxation is done by a group of people that claim to represent you. Robbers do not claim to represent you.


Occasionally there is some odd comment here or there on this site alluding to “rational choice” models. Now almost nobody in economics uses this phrase, because you don’t need a word to describe what everyone is doing. Yet rationality seems to get some non-economists excited. Why?

Oops — I forgot

The judicial nomination of Thomas Griffith, General Counsel of Brigham Young University and Bush appointee to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals seems to have hit a slight snag — as reported by this morning’s Washington Post, Griffith appears to have been acting as the University’s chief legal officer without the little detail of a license to practice law. Apparently Griffith’s admission to the District of Columbia bar lapsed for failure to pay his dues, and he never quite got around to sitting for the Utah bar. Highly embarassing, but perhaps not fatal to the nomination if no one’s out for blood during the confirmation process.

Blogging in a Different Voice

In my last post I raised several questions about the nature of participation in blogs and other computer mediated communication (CMC) fora, based upon research detailing the life-cycles of such fora. An additional, related line of research that seems to me important for the future of a blog such as Times and Seasons is a substantial body of work exploring the gendered nature of CMCs. This research arose out of observations that suggested a surprising scarcity of female participation in openly accessible CMC fora. Subsequent empirical and ethnographic studies by Susan Herring and others suggest that men and women have different discursive styles that are accommodated quite differently by CMC technologies. Analysis of messages posted by males in CMC fora find a masculine discursive style that tends to be aggressive, confrontational, and argumentative, placing a high emphasis on rationality and logical consistency. Posts by women on the other hand, are apt to be more conciliatory, emotive, and empathetic, placing a…

The Market for Bloggers

Those of us who have been using the Internet for awhile have watched the waxing and waning popularity of a variety of discussion media – beginning with USENET newsgroups, then listservs and chatrooms, various types of conferencing interfaces, IRC channels, and now weblogs. A few of us even remember FIDONET and dial-up computer BBS fora prior to the general accessibility of the Internet. Blogs seem to be the latest in a long line of electronic discussion formats. Researchers who study the social structure of computer-mediated communication (CMC) have noted that CMC discussions appear to evolve through one of a discrete set of predictable life-cycle progressions. Most start with a period of initial growth and enthusiasm, where participants join the forum and post actively. A very few discussions achieve an equilibrium of arrivals and departures that sustains them in a steady state over a long period. More often, they fall into decline; some slowly collapse in on themselves, like a white…

The Hipness of Divine Society

The idea of “social construction” is really hip in the social sciences and the humanities, or at least it was really hip a decade or two ago. Generally the concept gets invoked with another idea, namely “essentialism.” Here is how the game works. We take some quality – say race – and then we argue about its nature. If we are essentialists (and it is pretty unhip to be essentialist about anything), then we would argue that race is somehow an inherent, natural, biological quality. If we are social constructivists (and being the hip, smart people that we are, we are, of course, social constructionists), then we argue that there is nothing inherent about race. All of the characteristics we associate with this concept are actually social creations that are not contingent on nature, essence, or anything else. The distinction gets deployed in normative discussions as well. That which is essential supposedly provides us with a sure foundation for ethical…

Benevolent Theodicy: the Logical Necessity of Eternal Progression

Few Mormon doctrines cause traditional Christians more consternation than the belief in mankind’s potential to become like God. This is of course the reason the authors of the most famous anti-Mormon work chose for their title The God Makers. But hacks who deliberately produce fraudulent anti-Mormon screeds aren’t the only ones to be offended by our unique doctrine. Without exception, every thoughtful Christian with whom I’ve discussed the issue similarly believes our doctrine to be blasphemous (though they are circumspect in telling me so). But the Benevolent Theodicy, as I have called it, shows that they are wrong.

A Partial Response: Philosophy

I want to thank the many people who took the time to comment on my initial post. You’ve showed me that this guest-blogging stint will be both more stimulating and more time-consuming than I anticipated. I hope it is understood that I cannot possibly respond to all, or most, or even more than a very few of these comments. I’ll try to write two posts today, the first (this one) addressing the philosophical questions raised by Jim F and others; the second post will bring things back to Mormonism. I think the latter is important because this could easily develop into a debate about theory. I’d enjoy that, but I’m unsure if it would be a good use of the Times and & Seasons website. So, on to philosophy, postmodernism, Heidegger, etc. . . .

Mormonism: The Postmodern Faith

First off, let me thank Russell, both for inviting me to contribute to Times & Seasons and for his flattering comments about me. After that introduction, I fear I may disappoint. As Russell notes, I spent two years teaching at BYU, and have enjoyed dozens of email exchanges about LDS-related matters with the handful of good friends I made during my time on campus. Since I don’t have An Agenda for the following two weeks, I think I’ll start by sharing a few thoughts that have grown out of those exchanges.

Collective Action: Is it a Problem?

Given our dependence on a lay ministry and an (almost) all volunteer workforce, the fact that the Church operates at all is something of a miracle. Most of us credit (perhaps self-servingly) the “20” in the “80-20 Rule,” that is, those few individuals in every ward who seem to be shouldering the greatest burdens. As my time in the Church has lengthened, my affinity for the 80-20 Rule has waned. The Rule makes sense only when you count all of those nominal members who have no emotional attachment to the Church, but these people are largely excluded from the benefits generated by the “active” members. This isn’t like national defense, where everyone benefits even if only a few pay. With few exceptions, those who obtain the benefits generated by members of the Church are those who are actively engaged as members. To be sure, at any given time, some members are creating more benefits than they consume. Some people live…

The Criminal Law of Deseret

On January 16, 1851, the legislature of the State of Deseret passed a 34-section law entitled “Criminal Laws of the State of Deseret.” It actually makes for interesting reading. In 1851, the Mormons had been in Utah for only four years. The Territory of Utah had been formed in 1850, but federal authority in Utah was weak to completely non-existent. It would be another six years before any serious outside authority in the form of Johnston’s Army arrived. In other words, Mormon theocracy was firmly in the saddle, the real legal authority was clearly the State of Deseret and not the Territory of Utah, and Mormon political independence was probably as nearly complete as it has ever been. Hence, the laws that they chose to pass are particularly interesting as an insight into Mormon theocratic ambitions.