I really wanted to comment on recent articles of polls on doubt and Mormons but didn’t have time due to other commitments. I hope you don’t mind a few comments on the Huffington Post article about doubt based upon the Next Mormons Survey. The author Benjamin Knolls is a contributer with Jana Reiss in the recent Dialogue issue on doubt. He gets at an issue I’ve long been interested in – more objective analysis of Mormon retention. Polls and surveys over the past two decades have really allowed us to see what’s going on in a fashion that really wasn’t possible when I was younger. To my eyes, what’s been surprising about Mormon retention has always been just how high it has been.
While we waited for the next ARIS study of religious self-identification Jana Reiss had thankfully commissioned a study of Mormons and has written numerous articles on the data. The Huffington Post article looks at the question of believing the teachings of the Church. Now inherently there’s a bit of ambiguity here since we can debate what is or isn’t a teaching of the Church. The question is a bit vague. I suspect that if there’s a break with teachings of the Church it’s probably over LGBT issues and potentially some feminist issues related to sealings and priesthood. However there’s also more ambiguous issues such as evolution. Is no death before the fall a church teaching or not? I say no, others say yes – it’s a blurred question because of the distinction between what a general authority has espoused versus what the Church formally teaches. So two people might believe that’s wrong yet one think they ought say they only believe most teachings where the other says they believe all teachings.
Even given those ambiguities what’s surprising is that 49.1% of respondents believed all teachings and 33.9% believed most of them. Pretty much to my mind that means 83% of self-identified Mormons believe nearly everything taught. Only 17% expressed what we might call doubts and only 4.9% expressed significant doubt. Further among regular church goers only 9% expressed doubts. That’s staggeringly low and suggests the recent attention on troubling issues might not represent as big of a trend as some suggest. That’s not to say we shouldn’t help people with their doubts. Just that only around 10% of active members having doubts is pretty surprising to me.
The more interesting thing was the relationships of doubt. By and large it’s social networks that determine how much one doubts. Now this shouldn’t be surprising. It’s long been known that peer groups have a huge effect on belief and behavior. Psychologists have long noted that peers has at least as big an effect on personality as genetics does and for behavior arguably more of an effect. We’d expect that to manifest in religious comportment as well. The more friends someone has who leave the Church the more likely one is to express doubts. Attending seminary significantly decreases doubting – although teasing out whether that’s due to peer effects or simply understanding ones religion isn’t clear.
Further while this is a strong correlation it doesn’t establish causation. After all people who come to doubt may simply change their social network. However I’d suspect that this is at least partially causative in nature.
A final point that I found interesting was that doubters tend to appreciate the social aspects of Church more than believers. While that makes sense it’s still interesting. I’ll admit that to me the social aspects of Church don’t matter much. I go to Church because I believe, because I feel it’s my duty to serve (however feebly at times), and to partake of the ordinances.
Now I’ve not read the Dialogue article yet by Reiss and Knoll that Knoll’s Huffington Post article is summarizing. I hope to when I get some time. However I should note that I’m not sure this tells us as much about retention as it appears at first glance. While it seems likely that most attrition from the Church would come from doubters, people may well move from believer to doubter swiftly. Many of the examples of people leaving the Church that get the most attention are long term believers who suddenly come to have doubts. Likewise we all know people who have doubts but who continue to come to Church for years or even decades. Still, the level of belief and commitment is quite surprisingly high.
One problem of course is figuring out how to compare these Mormon figures with non-Mormon figures. That’s tricky since even among groups known as “conservative” theologically history and theology don’t really matter as much as they do for Mormons. So one recent survey found that “though American evangelicalism arose in the twentieth century around strongly held theological convictions, many of today’s self-identified evangelicals no longer hold those beliefs.” Other surveys have found odd beliefs among Evangelicals including 6% thinking the Book of Mormon was the word of God and 18% more who thought it might be.