Intellectual Disaffection and “The Biggest Tax Cut in History”

There are lots of stories on the Internet about people who have discovered things about Mormon history and left the Church. Indeed, these kinds of exit narratives have reached the point of cultural saliency that the New York Times and other media outlets have picked up on the story. I have repeatedly read or heard people claim that we are in the midst of an unprecedented wave of intellectual apostasy. I am skeptical.

Before I explain why, I hasten to add that I have absolutely no doubt that many people learn things about Mormon history that they did not know and have a crisis of faith. I think that the Church as an institution and Mormon culture in general could do a much better job of talking and teaching about the Mormon past. I have great sympathy toward those that have such faith crises and to a certain extent I have been through something like them myself.

That said, I am skeptical that we are actually seeing something unprecedented. To understand why, think of debates over taxes. Every time Congress considers tax increases or tax cuts critics and proponents will start insisting that “This is the largest tax increase in history!” or “This is the biggest tax cut in history!” Generally speaking, these guys will be right. The tax cut or increase is, in nominal terms, the largest of its kind in history. This fact, however, tells you almost nothing useful about the size of the cut or increase.

The reason is that the economy is always growing — albeit sometimes faster than at other times. This means that the economy today is virtually guaranteed to be the largest it has ever been in history. Accordingly, virtually any economic event today will be the biggest of its kind in history. This doesn’t mean that it is necessarily unprecedented or unique. It just means that it is contemporary.

The Church today is much larger than it was a generation ago. It’s much larger than it was 10 years ago. This is true even when we acknowledge that inactivity rates are very high. But this means that current swirls in Mormon culture are almost always going to be the largest such cultural events in history in absolute terms. In other words, I suspect that is is true that the number of people today who leave the Church because of intellectual concerns is larger than the number of people who left because of such concerns in the past. However, this may simply be because the Church is bigger today than it was in the past. The exit narratives are more salient not because they are more common within Mormondom but because Mormondom is just bigger.

But the Internet makes information far more widely available than it was in the past, one might object. True. On the other hand, the Internet also makes positive or faithful interpretations of that information far more widely available than in the past. Furthermore, I think it is abundantly clear that Mormon apologetics, broadly conceived, is far more nuanced, sophisticated, and persuasive today than was Mormon apologetics in the 1970s or 1980s for example. Hence, it’s entirely possible that we are actually doing better at dealing with these issues than in the past. It’s simply that in a larger Church there is naturally a larger group of people that have issues. It’s very difficult to know if this is true, but it seems at least as probable as the claim that the Internet is causing unprecedented levels of apostasy.

None of this is a reason for ignoring or dismissing individuals who find their faith challenged by difficult historical issues. We should find better ways of dealing with those issues. It would be good, however, if those efforts took as their model the shepherd leaving the 99 to go after the one rather than Chicken Little.

26 comments for “Intellectual Disaffection and “The Biggest Tax Cut in History”

  1. November 1, 2013 at 8:22 am

    It is funny how we use language to try and sway the way someone perceives a fact.

    Good thoughts.


    Now to the BIGGEST (best) message I ever heard!

    I have been on the verge of leaving the Christian faith a few times. But hearing this:

    has always encouraged me to realize that it is not I who is in charge.


  2. November 1, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Excellent thoughts. But it seems to me that at one time, it was fairly rare to come across contradictions or any seedy church history. You almost had to go out and search for it at one time. Now days, you might find something you didn’t know on Wikipedia, doing some research for your Sunday school lesson. Maybe even on a quick search for something on Google. Lots of websites appear to be pro-LDS where they slip in all kinds of history. I really hope the GA’s will take into account that some church history will bring people to question the church. Even strong members will falter when they find out about certain things.

  3. Beth
    November 1, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    I agree, Nate. I am skeptical that the rate of disaffection is significantly greater than in the past. But I am having a hard time convincing people around me that until we know real numbers (if ever), we should be cautious in our assumptions.

  4. Aaron B
    November 1, 2013 at 12:38 pm

    I dunno. The fact that there is faith-promoting content on the internet strikes me as less significant than you find it to be. The barriers to access to information problematic to faith have dropped. Sure, there are faith helps to be found online too. But Mormons have always been surrounded by faithful narrative framing, whereas the easy availability of problematic information is quite new. I suspect the net effect is an increase in disaffection, even if the extent of that increase is often exaggerated.

  5. Jonathan Green
    November 1, 2013 at 12:46 pm

    Aaron, there has been anti-Mormon literature since at least 1830, and even 19th-century Utah was home to many non-Mormons and disaffected Mormons who made their views known. I think I saw my first anti-Mormon pamphlet when I was 10. I don’t think the availability of negative information is all that new.

  6. Steve Smith
    November 1, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    That may very well be that rates of disaffection are the same as they were in the past. It’s hard to know without the numbers. You are right about Mormon apologetics becoming more nuanced. I actually see the T&S blog as a form of nuanced apologetics. The blog doesn’t engage in detailed defenses of church history and doctrine per se, but serves as an example of highly intellectual Mormons who remain faithful but who, like yourself, greatly sympathize with those experiencing faith crisis. The blog legitimates alternative approaches to activity, faithfulness in spite of disagreement with the FP/Q12 (over issues such as women and the priesthood and gay marriage), and agnosticism towards truth claims issues (such as the Book of Mormon, the one true church claim, etc.).

  7. Aaron B
    November 1, 2013 at 1:03 pm

    Jonathan, I didn’t say it was “new”. I said that access is easier, that barriers to discovering problematic historical information have dropped. There’s a huge difference between intentionally picking up a book or pamphlet that happens to cross your path (that is unlikely to ever cross your path) and sitting in your living room, google searching something Mormon-related, and clicking your mouse.

  8. Aaron B
    November 1, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    Also, Nate, I’m not sure who your tax cut comparison is directed toward exactly. Do you understand people to be saying merely that the raw numbers of disaffected are larger than in the past? I agree that such an observation, if true, isn’t very interesting for the reasons you suggest, but I don’t hear people claiming this (at least I don’t think I do). I understand folks to be claiming that the rate of disaffection is growing. Obviously, I don’t know that this is right, nor no they would know. It might be false. But it doesn’t strike me as implausible.

  9. Josh S
    November 1, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    #5 Jonathan,

    Can you define “anti-mormon”? In my thinking, all anti-mormon writings are negative, whereas not all negative facts about the church are necessarily anti-mormon.

  10. Nate Oman
    November 1, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Aaron: Two points in response. The internet has dropped barriers to getting access to troubling issues, true, but there are also dropping barriers to getting access to apologetic material. I think that you are wrong that we have always been swimming in a sea of apologetics and now the trouble is catching up. I think that in the past finding materials responding directly to troubling issues was actually quite difficult.

    Second, I see people pointing to the increasing number of exit narratives as evidence of an increasing rate of disaffection. Most folks making these claims are pretty sloppy, but I think that this is the gist of their basic inference if you boil it down. It’s not a valid inference and I am skeptical that the rate is increasing. Rather, I think that these kinds of stories result from a combination of the availability heuristic and a false inference from absolute numbers.

  11. Nate Oman
    November 1, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    At the very least I think that we should be considering a counter narrative to the Internet-is-causing-massive-intellectual-crisis-the-sky-is-falling. My proposal is past-Mormon-problems-get-bigger-as-Mormondom-gets-bigger-and-can-even-get-bigger-as-we-do-better-we-can-still-do-better-but-life-will-go-on.

  12. Mark B.
    November 1, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    I would tend to agree with Nate. In fact, this entire post could be reduced to two lines from Bennett Cerf’s Book of Riddles:

    Who do white sheep eat more than black sheep?

    Because there are so many more white sheep.

  13. wondering
    November 1, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    I don’t have much sense of whether the rate of disaffection is changing or not, despite all the claims. I suspect there are some people in Salt Lake City who actually have some hard data, but i guess they’re not telling.

    “The Church today is much larger than it was a generation ago. It’s much larger than it was 10 years ago.”

    I wouldn’t say “much bigger.” The number of stakes went up from 2624 to 3004, a 14.5% increase. And many of these new stakes are in places like Africa, so it well may be that the number of active members per-stake has gone down. To compare to your taxes example, USA GDP has increased 40.7% over the same period.

  14. Steve Smith
    November 1, 2013 at 3:16 pm

    Great observation, Nate, that apologetics are more accessible as well. But there is an undeniable migration of Mormondom to a place that it has not been before. Many relevant issues of the past don’t seem relevant anymore, and what was once dismissed as irrelevant is being forced into relevance. For instance, the question of why people left the church was once regarded as irrelevant and was typically explained as “pride.” But Elder Uchtdorf’s recent talk is evidence that high-ranking authorities are saying that it is much more complex than that. Also, many ideas that were once popular in Mormondom are now becoming unpopular. For instance Randy Bott’s beliefs about why blacks were denied the priesthood, which was once a popular view, was shouted down by his fellow colleagues at BYU. And just yesterday, Joni Hilton’s article in Meridian magazine, entitled “Are You a Liberal Mormon?,” which probably would have been quite popular a little while back, elicited a wave of opposition from the Mormon rank and file to the extent that the Meridian editorial staff (Meridian of all places) decided to take it down: One last example of migration is Ben S’ recent post on T&S about the upcoming Joseph Fielding Smith manual which notes how JFS’s Young Earth Creationist beliefs (again, once quite popular in Mormondom) were conspicuously absent.

    So the question is might Mormondom migrate to the extent that it becomes simply a moralistic therapeutic deism, like many other Protestant groups, which struggles to grow (at least in the US) even if it does maintain a roughly constant active to inactive ratio?

  15. Owen
    November 1, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    What makes me doubt the “people are leaving in droves because of the Internet” narrative is how big a pill the OT and acknowledged, correlated church history are to swallow already. The bits that got swept under the rug seem like pretty small potatoes comparatively.

  16. Wilfried
    November 1, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    Nate, you’re probably right about the proportions as to intellectual apostasy. However, your approach seems to only deal with “in” or “out”. What seems as interesting (and more acute?) are the numbers that suffer from intellectual discomfort with doctrinal and historical issues, but remain “active”. I am not aware of studies that try to measure the level of intellectual discomfort among present-day active members, but I would assume that, because of the higher availability of both critical and apologetic sources, as you point out, and the ongoing dissussions on blogs, that the number of active Mormons feeling intellectual discomfort has risen and that there are varieties to be discerned.

    Typologies of Mormons may have to refine some of their categories in that respect. In 1998 Stan Albrecht identified nine types of Mormons along two dimensions of (dis)engagement: belief and community. His typology moves from the one extreme of “fervent follower” (fully committed to doctrines and community) to the other extreme of “apostate” (rejecting both doctrine and community). Next to the fervent ones are “ritualists” and “cultural saints”, still “active”, but weak in doctrinal allegiance. Among these two we might need subcategories as to levels of discomfort.

    Walter Van Beek, who studied the profiles of inactives in a Dutch ward, distinguishes engaged believers (the majority of active members), engaged nonbelievers (those who attend meetings and otherwise outwardly conform but who lack spiritual conviction), disengaged nonbelievers (the majority of the inactive), and disengaged believers (inactives, but still believing). The category of the “engaged nonbelievers” would be the topic here for further analysis.

    More recently Henri Gooren developed a complex model for “conversion careers” using five levels of religious commitment, from preaffiliation to disaffiliation, influenced by four types of factors—personality, contingency, institutional, and social. Also here it would be interesting to see to what extent doctrinal and historical questioning would influence discomfort on which level and in which factor.

  17. Howard
    November 2, 2013 at 8:58 am

    In the past one was socially isolated with their doubt’s and often concluded they were alone in their questioning and struggle but today they find many like minded people for support and this is placing collective pressure on the church to finally respond to contraversal issues they easily ignored and left buried in the past by turning members doubt’s inward and blaming them for a lack of faith or obedience or a desire to sin. Finally holding the church accountable is very healthy for all involved.

  18. PeterV
    November 2, 2013 at 3:24 pm

    I like that you raised the issue. However, as some of the above comments have said, we simply do not have the numbers and the Church will not give them out. So, we are left to speculate as usual as to what is really going on. The Church is continually less than forthcoming and that is a problem and I don’t see it changing any time soon. Even though you probably don’t expect the Church to announce that people are leaving in droves if that’s happening, why not be a little more open?


    Let us know where the money is going. Why does a church need a hedge fund (Ensign Peak Advisors, Inc.)? Let us know the truth about the past. Why were plates necessary when he didn’t use them? Why couldn’t anyone see them if they actually existed? It’s coming out that the biased family witnesses only “saw” the plates spiritually and not actually. Why do the first vision stories get more and more fantastic as time goes on? And finally, what is up with polygamy? It cannot be for raising seed – the polygamist populations down south are not exploding and never have exploded. It really looks like J.S. was simply uncontrolled in his appetites and used it as a justification for his poor conduct. How do we respond to these questions oh apologetic?


  19. sethg
    November 2, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    You need to doubt your doubts peterv and not ask so many non-faith-promoting questions.

  20. November 3, 2013 at 10:55 pm

    Actually, what Peterv needs to to do is look more closely at the evidence to realize that: (1) the two accounts of witnesses seeing only with spiritual eyes are late hearsay that have little reliability and are contradicted by numerous other statements of the witnesses that are far more historically rellaible; (2) the first vision accounts hardly get “more fantastic” with time (indeed it is quite arguable that the 1832 account is most miraculous and developed especially within its cultural setting; and (3) what’s up with polygamy has been thoroughly addressed by Brian Hales in his 3 vols. series: You are right, it is not about raising up seed but about being sealed up for eternity.

    These kind of uninformed comments show what the real problem is likely to be in many cases with those who access the various websites and fail to critically assess the claims made in various anti-Mormon websites. The documents related to Church that are being made available at a record rate by the Church.

    I admit it would be nice if the church disclosed its financial information.

  21. Steve Smith
    November 4, 2013 at 12:05 am

    PeterV, I don’t know if the LDS church necessarily has anything to hide in terms of its history that would be particularly damning, or at least not more supposedly damning than that which is already available. I do wish that the LDS church was more open about its finances.

    I certainly sympathize with your questions, and we probably agree somewhat in our points of view, but they are typical sort of gotcha questions pushed in the post-Mormon community. And those questions certainly aren’t ones that would prompt any sort of ‘objective’ analysis of the LDS church. The Golden plates are certainly a mystery. If JS fabricated them, out of what material? If he drugged the witnesses on mushrooms or datura, how? As for polygamy, Joseph Smith may have certainly had a natural lust for lots of women, but what’s to say that he didn’t also receive a revelation from God to do just that, and restore a former social order lived by ancient Hebrews? As for the multiple first vision stories, that’s not necessarily evidence that JS didn’t have a vision. Maybe the vision wasn’t as vivid, or he had a memory lapse.

    There are some other questions, however, that I think are more difficult to explain. How come the Book of Abraham ‘translation’ doesn’t match the facsimiles at all? Why don’t LDS people pray and ask God about the truthfulness of The Book of the Law of the Lord, which was allegedly an ancient text translated by James Strang? This book also had witnesses, some of whom weren’t even believers, who confirmed that they saw the plates with inscriptions on them; plus the original text is still in existence.

  22. rah
    November 4, 2013 at 5:05 am

    I wish we had good data on this. Clearly, the church has such data but it is not the type they ever share.

    My observation is that there does seem to be a rise in a particular profile of disaffiliation – the previously committed member who had reached ward leadership levels of inclusion and then leave. Maybe this is simply perception due to how much more widely the narratives are shared but growing up and in my early married adulthood that ran through the early 2000s I am really hard pressed to think of a single example of a person or family in my ward who were central to ward functioning that left due to disbelief. Now, just constraining myself to families in wards I lived in (so not internet stories) I can count on more than two hands such families that have left in just the last few years and many more that are hanging on but uncertain. These are families with EQ presidencies, RSPs, bishoprics, Sunday School presidents, YM and YW leadership etc.

    I think it is the nature of who is leaving that is causing us to sit up and take notice. When YSAs newly released to the wild drift off in college or after high school the impact to ward communities is muted (though can be pretty hard on families). When marginal members of the community (new converts etc) fail to stick around the impact is rarely deeply felt (sadly). However, when an entire family who has held multiple leadership callings and with deep connections throughout the community all of sudden walk out the door, the effect can be traumatic on a ward. Again, I wish we had statistics but I know many of the stakes I have been of part of recently have been shocked and highly concerned about what they consider a new dynamic. I wouldn’t tag “church history” as the sole cause. It seems to be a mix between church history, difficult social issues (LBGT and women’s rights), the broader culture shift away from organized religion and a rise in legitimated atheism.

  23. Thomas225
    November 4, 2013 at 10:52 am

    The Church needs to stop sanitizing history and stop being so right wing in politics and business. I think if it opened up its collective mind and maybe followed the “golden rule” to its logical end, maybe people would be a little less disaffected. Ad hominem attacks of critics doesn’t help either. It shows there might be something to hide.

  24. Adam G.
    November 4, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    You may or may not be right, I can’t say. But as someone who loves good writing, I can tell you your last line is a killer. I laughed out loud.

  25. richard
    November 7, 2013 at 6:31 pm

    This is just a silly, little idea by the Nate.

    You cannot tell us if the “leaving” is now greater or less than in Missouri or in Kirtland (or in St. George 1942 or in Pocatello 2011). You do not know, as the Church does not provide the information to compare.

    Nate gives us nonsense speculation, over the border of bad apologetics. You suggest the “problem” is not too bad, when in fact you have no data to support that, though your weak analogy suggests you might.

  26. Mtnmarty
    November 10, 2013 at 11:14 am

    In terms of the size and growth of the church, the forces are births in the faith, retention into the faith and new converts.

    In the USA, the Pew survey, as limited as it is, has some interesting statistics. The percentage of the current population that identifies as Mormon is just slightly lower than the percentage that were raised mormon. That is the was less growth from births and converts than from leavers.

    The Mormon retention rate of 70% was fairly typical of large churches in the USA, close to catholic and the protestant average.

    The issue for the growth of the church in the USA is that even a small decrease in retention and a small decline in family size would require big increase in new converts just to remain steady in terms of the percentage of the population being LDS.

    The open question is whether there is a tipping point where the character of the church and who remains in it, changes dramatically in the USA, when it is a declining share of the population and returns to its roots as a very small sect. It may be very good for the faithful to be freed from any notion of being a major force in religion in the USA.

    On the other hand, a lack of growth can turn leavers from a trickle to a flood, who wants to be part of a shrinking identity?

    Of course the dynamic in the rest of the world is very different with all kinds of its own unpredictable effects.

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