Mormon Retention and the Internet

A common belief, especially by critics, is that Mormon retention has fallen primarily due to the rise of the internet. The argument goes that with the internet becoming ubiquitous that people encounter troubling historical facts. Those facts then undermine their testimony causing them to leave the Church. While I’m sure this has happened to many people, I’m very skeptical it’s the real issue people leave the Church in general.

Now to be clear I’m not denying the internet has an effect. I’m more disputing the size of the effect and the mechanism of the effect. This is an important point. My own view is that the internet has a small effect, but that its primary effect is due to a social peer effect. People tend to adopt the behaviors and beliefs of their peers in some degree. The internet allows people to encounter new peers not restricted geographically as in the past. As one enters into these virtual social groups, the same effect on belief and behavior takes place, often leading people to cease affiliating with prior peers.

Before I get into all my criticisms of the claim though it’s probably best to first make the claim as in a strongly defended form as possible. One well known recent paper on the relationship of religious affiliation and internet usage is Allen Downey’s “Religious Affiliation, Education and Internet Use.” He notes using GSS data the extremely strong correlation between internet use and disaffiliation.

Internet Usage and Religious Disaffiliation

Just looking at that graph it’s hard to deny there is a correlation. The question though is what the size of the effect is and the cause. While Downey gives a few speculations about the causal mechanism he notes that it accounts for only “about 20% of the observed decrease in affiliation.” (10) I’d note further than while internet usage is increasing, there’s a strange plateau of disaffiliation from the late 90’s to around 2004 in the gss data. Accounting for that plateau seems somewhat problematic. While it may be only coincidental, it’s in 2005 when the disaffiliation rise begins again that Facebook becomes popular. Of course there were other social networks around the same time.

Religious Unaffiliated in Canada and the United States

More interesting data comes when one looks at disaffiliation in Canada as compared to the US. While US data seems to correspond to the rise of the Internet, the trend in Canada starts much earlier in the late 70’s. Canada and the United States are, in many ways, extremely similar countries. Why should we say disaffiliation in the US is due to the Internet when we can see a very similar trend in Canada?

I’ve argued many times that in at least the initial decades of the rise of disaffiliation that the effect is primarily nominalistic. That is it was mainly a change in what people call themselves rather than a significant change in behavior. People who lived in a religious community in the past would call themselves Baptist, Mormon, or a similar label even if they didn’t really attend. Now they call themselves Nones. You can see this effect in the data both in Canada and the United States. Religious attendance stabilizes after some initial drops starting in the late 80’s. (Well before widespread access to the Internet)

Religious Attendance in US and Canada

Now that data only goes up to 2012, but I think that’s enough to problematize the claim about the Internet.

Going back to Downey’s paper, it’s worth quoting from one critique of the data. Heidi Campbell has some critiques quite similar to mine. She notes,

…trends toward religious disaffiliation, or what some sociologist have called “belief without belonging”, has been occurring for a much longer period, arguably at least since post WWII, which is much than we have had public Internet access. In my opinion I think it is much too early to make a strong causal link between the two trends.

Later she says,

In my previous work I have argued that what the Internet does is magnify and spotlight broader religious trends already happening in culture. For example, claims that Internet use is causing a disintegration or loss of religious community are generally unfounded. Rather the internet facilitates new forms of social networks that serve in similar roles and often augment traditional religious communities (Campbell 2004). It also highlights that the ways people understand, create and function as religious communities have shifted over time from tightly-bound groups based on geographic and family ties to loose social networks based on social needs and personal preferences. Also instead of people using the internet to log on and drop out of offline religious groups or engage in religious ritual spaces, the Internet becomes a way to extend religious practices into new spheres of engagement and supplement their offline activities to expand the breadth of their religious activities (Campbell 2005).

I think that the Canadian data which shows the trend occurring more than a decade before the United States ought urge in us caution about how we make the internet/disaffiliation claim. Now to be fair what I’ve discussed in the above is disaffiliation in general and not the particular question of Latter-day Saint disaffiliation. A critic could obviously suggest that Mormon history has more problems than general Christian history. While I’m rather dubious of that argument, we should engage with it.

First off while Christian numbers have shrunk, relative to the US population, Latter-day Saint numbers have remained surprisingly consistent the past several decades. ARIS has us at around 1.4% and Pew at 1.6%. So if anything Mormons seem to have been less affected. Some point to retention numbers with worse retention of late. Typically though that appeals to rather questionable data on old (pre-ARIS) retention numbers. (See my “Mormon Youth and Retention” and “How Successful is Mormon Retention?” for more arguments along these lines) It’s not that we aren’t losing members. It’s just that I think the numbers get exaggerated somewhat. We’re still growing overall, despite recent drops in missionary effectiveness.

The second problem is just the time frame. By 2000 internet penetration had reached a critical number. Most of the change in access is from around 1995 – 2002. But in that same time frame US numbers for Latter-day Saints remain consistent relative to a growing US population. The rate of change of the population does start decreasing from the early 90’s through around 2002 but is still increasing. One could well argue that since the correlation there is so strong, that it’s the rate of new Americans rather than the rate of Internet usage that is the dominate correlate.

Now again, I don’t want to deny there being an effect from the internet on Mormon retention. I just really dispute the size and underlying causation.

20 comments for “Mormon Retention and the Internet

  1. I tend to agree with your analysis. I do think one aspect within Mormonism that is at play is that the Mormon culture adamantly against sharing any issues or deep questions. We expect everything to have a nice pat Sunday school answer – or we claim to resolve it with a statement like, “It will make sense after we die.”

    Where that plays into Mormonism, the Internet, and disaffection is that there is a place to anonymously try and wrestle with the topics you would never bring up in Gospel Doctrine. I remember for years wondering, “How could Alma baptize people when there was no indication he had the priesthood and I found it hard to believe that the court of King Noah would have been a bunch of High Priests (or should I say “Elders” now). When one goes and finds others that are trying to wrestle with their topics, they run into many more issues they have never thought of, but now find troubling (somewhat the same situation when some people go visit FairMormon to get answers to their question, only to find many more questions).

    I think this can amplify the perceptions of issues in the church. There are some that seem to me to think that there are many more perv bishops than I think there are (but I have to admit that I have had such a bishop). Sharing of such issues is generally shut down quick in church meetings and even among members outside the church. Once there is a forum to share, many issues are shared and that can make someone more critical of the church.

    This is an interesting topic and I think the next few years and decades will leave for some interesting professional and arm-chair pontificatation on the dynamics of retention in the LDS and other faiths.

  2. My current hypothesis is that there are several measures we might talk about, the rate of change is different, and they rank something like this (high rate of change to low; highly debatable):

    1. Self identification—what you call yourself on a PEW survey, but also where religion places among one’s several identities (political, ethnicity, sexual preference, national, etc.)
    2. Missionary effectiveness or # of adult convert baptisms.
    3. Willingness to take on obligations or assignments that are demanding but not on the checklist.
    4. Attempt or intent to comply with the checklist (temple recommend, standards for youth). Also, orthopraxy
    5. Seats in the pews on a Sunday.

    Then I look at my list and have mostly questions. I do think the dynamics are different and I would be very careful about using one to predict the other. But rank ordering feels like a game, i.e., wild guesswork.

  3. Christian, I think missionary effectiveness is a big issue. I think at this stage the changes to the missionary program a few years ago have unarguably hurt effectiveness a great deal. It’s not clear whether they’ll reverse those changes (although I hope they do) as it’s quite possible there are benefits in retention of youth. Nonetheless I really hope some of the changes they’ve made (not just the age issue) get rethought somewhat.

    Happy, I do wish we had better discussions in church. On the one hand I understand why the focus is on the basics of the gospel and more importantly practical applications to living in the spirit. Nonetheless we really could grapple with the scriptures better. There are some benefits to using the internet but I wonder how much of that online learning is actually going on. I don’t use Facebook so maybe there’s stuff there but I don’t see it.

    BTW – I think Alma did have the priesthood since he’s introduced as one of the priests of Noah. The bigger question is the broad conception of Nephite priesthood when there appear to be no Levites with them. I think the Deuteronomist reforms, which were fairly controversial, prior to the exile explain that. The centralization of priesthood just to the Cohen really develops during that period and the exile. You see Lehi following practices in opposition to that centralization, such as offering sacrifices outside of Jerusalem. So I think the history of the Deuteronomist reforms starting with Josiah up to after the exile, how it revises scripture, and the complex relationship the Nephites have with the Deuteronomists tends to answer that question.

  4. Clark,
    According to the study, the biggest factor in religious affiliation is religious upbringing. Since upbringings are slow, changes in religious affiliation are also slow. The internet hasn’t even been around long enough for everyone to have been brought up in the age of the internet.

    It is an extremely complicated subject, but it seems right now there are two forces lowering religion, higher rates of non-religious upbringing, lower rates of new affiliation with religion and one big force producing more religion – differential fertility where religious people have more children than the non-religious. See for example, “Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth” by Eric Kaufmann with regards to differential fertility.

    In addition to the modeling complexity, detailed data on LDS affiliation is not generally available.

    On top of the trends in affiliation are trends in what religion is like for those remaining affiliated. You have made the argument that religious disaffiliation is overstated by changes in denomination. I think there is also an argument that religious affiliation from a belief point of view is understated because it doesn’t account for changing beliefs and practices within denominations. Fundamentalists would argue for example that the LDS church is a disaffiliation from 19th century mormonism and it would seem to me that is correct in many ways.

    I think one of the most interesting trends in religion in the USA will be the effect of globalization. Both in terms of more Hindu, Muslim and atheist immigration and the adaptation of the international power structure to a post post-Christian structure. World culture will be adapting to more Chinese, Russian, Muslim influences with unpredictable effects. Did Russian influence cause more religious cultural affiliation in conservative parts of the country? Does Asian influence in the western coastal states contribute to a post-christian culture?
    It will take centuries to find out.

  5. Martin, I agree that even Downing sees religious upbringing as a larger effect than the internet. (25% vs. 20%)

    The typical argument by critics is that information is the key driver of people leaving Mormonism. Further they often argue that Mormonism is more susceptible to this due to our history. I just don’t see the data supporting this. It’s a thesis from anecdote relatively unsupported. (I’ll do a subsequent post later this week using some of Jana Reiss’ data)

    All that said, critics are right that the rise of the Nones hasn’t been that slow. In the space of about 25 years there’s really been a very huge swing. Although I do think it tends to primarily affect young generations. So Gen-X was first really affected in the 90’s. Then each generation after has become much more secular. I’m not sure that generational aspect suggests the problem being information. Rather this seems due to that religious upbringing effect you mentioned as it compounds with each generation.

    Further among Christians, Mormons seem to be doing fairly well in terms of retention of those raised in the faith with our retention being between 65% – 70%. Typically we’re nearly on par with Evangelicals, far ahead of all other large Christian movements, and surpassed only by more ethnic faiths where there’s an obvious strong social component beyond the religious component.

    While fertility explains some of this, as does immigration which the last decade has trended towards having more and more non-Christians (and obviously non-Mormons), I tend to see that as having a more minor effect.

    As I’ve mentioned, the trend in at least its initial phase was much more a nominalist change. People loosely connected to religion just stopped identifying with it. That’s changed somewhat of late.

    Your point about fertility still is worth pursuing. Since the great recession Utah fertility dropped quite a bit. It appears that birth rates are only recently starting to rebound nationally. (At least according to some reports) I’m curious as to how that affects Mormons. We don’t have recent data on that. Using Utah as a proxy is dangerous for various reasons (it’s becoming less Mormon given immigration trends) however the fertility rate continues to drop in Utah, perhaps reflecting Mormon trends as well.

  6. The “information” is largely incidental. What’s happening is primarily social. Members who don’t feel like they are getting all that they should be getting within the church seek to supplement it. This leads to group formation (e.g., through Facebook, the Bloggernacle, podcasts, MI/FairMormon/Interpreter, etc.), which almost inevitably encourages fragmentation and drift. If “information” were primary, we’d see people surfing the Internet, shouting, “OMG, SEER STONES! POLYANDRY!” and going immediately inactive. That may happen, here and there. But, more commonly, we see pockets of people chattering about church-related issues across a wide, self-segregating attitudinal spectrum. Some disaffiliate, formally or informally; but, even then, many remain in orbit around the church and the issues that pulled them from it, participants in an alternate/eccentric virtual “congregation.”

  7. sd,
    I think it depends on what you men by information. Historical fact type information or information about choice. I think the fit with disaffiliation is a much better fit with increases in consumer choice via product differentiation. I think people are more accustomed to self-segregation in terms of consumer choice in all its varieties including social and that affects religious choice. The LDS correlated model doesn’t adapt well to consumer choice. There is some correlated with geography and ethnicity but little beyond that in terms of type of services or forms of religious practice. The virtual congregations seem pretty superficial in terms of the degree of social engagement.

  8. Clark,
    I’m not sure how you are measuring retention but 65% seems high relative to either a long measurement period or a relatively loose definition of baseline activity.
    Take for example, children of record times half to the number males serving full time missions. That number is way below 65% already. But let’s say that you go with full time missionaries as the measuring of baseline participation. What is the rate of full time missionaries to temple attendance say 15 years later. It would have to be higher than 65% to leave room for disaffiliation after age 36 or so, which e know does occur.
    I think your retention factor only makes sense if you assume the church is much smaller than not just the official figure but a figure based on above 50% attendence at say ages 8 to 12 and a 20 year type retention period versus a 60 or 70 year period.
    Basically this is just back to the there is no good data plus the time frame is just way too short.
    Anecdotally, I agree with you that the internet isn’t the main factor in disaffiliation. I also believe that the internet has changed everything. A lot.

  9. Martin, that figure is just for people raised in the Church and thus doesn’t include retention of converts. It’s the figures both ARIS and Pew give.

  10. It doesn’t surprise me that Church’s numbers have remained more stable than those of other Christian denominations. The Church spends far more resources on insular programs that I’d say are quite effective at discouraging free thought. In highschool your time is sucked up by Sunday services, FHE, mutual, seminary, and school while you are warned about reading anything that isn’t faith promoting. There is huge social pressure to go on a mission where for two years are only allowed to access faith promoting material. Once at BYU the loss of faith means starting your degree over at a state school. By the time many (maybe most) members are in a position to look beyond the whitewashed version of history that the Church offers they have a demanding job, demanding calling, spouse (also a member), and kids.

    Mormons have more kids than the rest of the US. So if the percentage of people in the US that are Mormon is just holding steady then there must be more people leaving the Church than are joining. This is significant given how much the Church spends on retention and recruiting. I think it is directly related to the availability of information via the internet but I don’t think the relationship is straightforward enough to be proved or disproved by placing a couple of graphs side-by-side. It’s not just a matter of when the internet made information available, it’s also a matter of when the members have the skill, interest, and time to access that information.

    My ward has had multiple families walk away due to information they found on the internet. Same for my parents ward. Same for my in-laws ward. Yes this is anecdotal evidence but I suspect there is a wider trend. The only entity that has good enough data to establish a clear trend is the Church but it doesn’t share. Observing church actions allows us to at least guess how the Church is interpreting its own data. I think the existence of the ‘topics’ essays is a strong indication that the Church believes the internet is significantly impacting membership. If the entity with the best data believes that there’s a problem then I’m going to wager that there is in fact a problem.

  11. Miles, the percentage of Mormons is staying stable relative to the US population. But the US population is growing so the number of Mormons is growing at the same rate as the US (births + immigration).

    To the other claims, I think Mormons know a lot more about the world than you suggest. Also from what I can tell missionaries are allowed far more access to materials these days than I was on my mission. (I’m not sure that a good thing mind you – I think it contributes to the decrease in effectiveness)

  12. Clark,
    I took a look at the ARIS report about the LDS. That reports cites another study that showed a 64.4% age 16 to current LDS percentage for years 2001 to 2008. This was down from 92.6 % from 1972 to 2000.

    Since the 64.4% is retention to current age from age 16 it significantly overstates lifetime retention. Those statistics would also show a significant increase in disaffiliation rate post-internet.

    I admit that I may have been focusing too much on male affiliation versus female affiliation. Assuming the retention rate, however defined, is 65%, then the male rate would need to be less than fifty percent to produce the 3/2 ratio of females to males in the current affiliation data.

    I think to get the most accurate projection of the disaffiliation rate, a trend model by age cohort is needed. Then the temporal effects of a change like the internet could be separated from generational changes.

    One factor that I’m not sure about that could be significant is whether the relatively good retention experience of LDS and evangelical is a permanent difference or a just a generational lag that will eventually reach similar levels to mainline protestantism.

    The analogy to family size may be that it is some of both but with a similar effect to the general population but on a lagged basis.

    Another fascinating data point in the Aris report was the large reported increase in the percentage of females who are reported to be housewives increasing from 22 percent in 1990 to 32 percent in 2008. That could be produced by an increase in disaffiliation of working females or it could just be difference in employment behavior.

    Overall, the Aris report made me even more convinced that huge shifts are occurring that will take generations to play out. A few of those are smaller family sizes, offset by polarization in affiliation by gender specialization in employment and family size, differential male disaffiliation leading to even more females outside a temple marriage.

    I was a bit surprised to see how the LDS population outside of Utah skewed to lesser educated, lower income whites. Forty-one percent of the non-Utah mormons had high school or less education compared to 31 percent in Utah, for example.

    The same tension between college educated whites and lesser educated whites politically within the republican party in support for Trump, may be seen in the future within the LDS population socially and culturally. Although, the LDS church has always seen itself as separate and distinct from the world, it has also sought to be mainstream enough in business and politics so as not to be disqualified or severely disadvantaged in serving in leadership roles in those institutions.

  13. Martin, that early retention statistic got addressed in one of the links from the OP. I just find that 90+% statistic completely implausible. Further it’s based upon gss data that just isn’t a good sample to use – particularly for that era with Mormons. I’m completely skeptical retention has ever been better than 70%. There was a 72% statistic from the 90’s that’s perhaps plausible but I find the number to more likely be between 65% and 70% which is what ARIS and Pew respectively get.

    The non-Utah statistics are biased I’d presume by Idaho where there are many rural Mormons. But also while our perception of Mormons is as educated middle class people, the reality is Mormons are pretty average in many ways. Further for converts it’s hard to get middle class people to listen to us. Most of the lessons for middle class people I taught were referrals from members. Most of the people I taught that I found myself were lower class or blue collar. Frequently they’re more humble and willing to listen long enough for the spirit to touch them. However that then biases the demographic data.

    How this intersects with Trump is an interesting question. I’m constantly surprised by friends who (to my eyes) are just not critical about Trump. Some of that may be demographics, but I’ve come around to the idea that we’re in a super-polarized time where people aren’t for things so much as they’re against their perceived enemies. This to me is hugely destructive and is undermining our government. Yet it seems to be where we are as a people.

  14. “I’m very skeptical it’s the real issue people leave the Church in general”

    There are many reasons that people leave, I agree. For instance, in Latin America, I think that discovering uncomfortable historical facts has extremely little to do with why people leave. However, in Utah, I gather that historical issues are a more significant reasons why people leave. A few years back, I remember John Dehlin publishing a survey of some 3,000 people who had left the church showing that historical issues were a significant reason.

    Given recent church initiatives and publications, I have every reason to believe that the LDS leaders believe that historical issues are a significant reason why people at the core of Mormondom are leaving. You also have to consider the possibility that while many leave the LDS church for reasons unrelated to historical issues, the historical issues are keeping a greater number who would otherwise be prone to return from actually going back. The ease of access of information is facilitating this.

    I agree that it appears that the LDS church is still growing, albeit more slowly. But I simply don’t think that there is enough available data to declare that all is well in Zion. I keep hearing so many stories and occasionally coming upon some data that appear to indicate that the LDS church is struggling to grow and retain, particularly among millennials. The simply can’t see how the rise of the nones isn’t affecting the LDS church as well. I also find it hard to believe that the internet, particularly social media, doesn’t have some effect on this. So I remain cautious about accepting your main idea, although I, like you, anxiously await more data and am very open to the possibility that it is confirming what you have been saying.

  15. Xander, I’m not sure I’d trust that Dehlin poll since it’s hardly a representative sample. Jana Reiss’ recent work is and gives a better overview. One post she did on it last February was interesting. It’s hard to break out the issue of information due to the asked questions. There are a few questions related to that though. Transparency about history was #5 for women leaving. Better answers for faith crises was #3. By far the main drivers were members being too judgmental (a big problem on the internet too) and having more inclusive positions on social issues.

    Your point about people returning is a good one. I’m not sure how to analyze that. I suspect that the key issues that push people to be in a position to question more skeptically their beliefs are different from the reasons people might leave. But once they’ve left, then it’s quite reasonable to assume that theology or historical issues become more of a burden for returning.

    Overall though my sense is that within American Mormons the biggest drive of late is the political polarization in the country and how Mormons overwhelmingly adopt more Republican positions. That may also be affecting members in far more liberal countries like Canada or in Europe as well.

    I certainly don’t want to portray things as having an “all is well in Zion” position. Far from it. I think we have pretty big problems in missionary work and I think in many ways we’ve been coasting since the 80’s. I’m skeptical a lot of conversion numbers of the 70’s and 80’s should be seen as accurate. Simply because there often weren’t good solid conversions of those who were baptized not to mention poor integration into wards. However it’s also undeniable that missionary work has slowed – particularly in the more secular west. We’ve not figured out a way to appeal to secular people enough to get the spirit in. We also have not customized our message for non-Christian regions – particularly Asia. This at a time when other Christian faiths are experiencing rapid growth in Asia.

    However looking at the first half of the 20th century, I think we’re doing great – particularly compared to the mid century. It’s secularism I don’t think we’re dealing well with though. We’re still mostly situated to an era when we faced persecution from Protestants yet primarily converted Protestants.

  16. Dehlin’s poll seems representative of Utahns, which was the point I was making. 3,000 people have to count for something. if you visit ex-Mormon blogs, it is all about historical issues (although it could be that they are simply more vocal than those who leave for other reasons). There appears to be no end of personal stories about how one left the church because they read the CES Letter. I feel like you are greatly downplaying this. And I’m surprised that you find Reiss’s post (which is informative) more representative than Dehlin’s. I know for sure from personal stories that there is a fair amount of denialism in the believing LDS world as to why people leave (not saying that you are a denialist). I have read a fair number of anecdotes from ex-Mormons who did leave over historical issues about how their believing family members refused to take them seriously and insisted that they left because of a hidden sin or because they got offended. I think that this is because many believers feel that by acknowledging that a family member left because of historical issues that they are indirectly validating those historical issues.

    I fully agree that the LDS church isn’t doing well with secularism and is still stuck in old competitions with Protestants. But I guess that goes for a lot of other Christian denominations and religions in the West.

  17. I agree that the internet has little to do with rising rates of defection from religion generally, or from Mormonism specifically. Using GSS data one can clearly see that increasing rates of defection from the church are primarily concentrated in Utah and the Intermountain West. I’ve linked a chart from a forthcoming paper below:

    The erosion of Mormon majorities in Utah (from migration and declining fertility) have diluted the state’s religious subculture. In previous decades, Mormon majorities in Utah fused church and community norms, making a violation of the former subject to sanction in the latter. For this reason, there has always been a disjunction between believing and behaving in Utah. Some Utah Mormons go along to get along … hence the stereotype of Utah Mormons. As the subculture weakens, those “cultural Mormons,” who were never much interested in church activity to begin with have increasingly chosen to disaffiliate. The social costs are now lower. This explains the pattern observed in the GSS.

    Self-identified Mormons continue to report extremely high levels of religious observance all while apostasy from the church increases. The wave of disaffiliation from Mormonism is comprised of its least committed members in Utah and adjacent states choosing to sever whatever tenuous ties they may have had to the faith. Of course, one hears stories of perfectly devout members who do a Google search while preparing a sacrament meeting talk, find something unsavory in church history, and promptly fall away. That has happened. But it is probably rare. I find that most people leave the church for incredibly banal reasons. They just conclude that membership isn’t worth the costs. Because apostasy in Utah used to carry considerable social costs, many people hung around. They are more free to leave now. Previous studies have shown a linear relationship between measures of Mormon religiosity and the share of each Utah county’s residents belonging to the church. That is why I think religious demography, and not information technology, is the explains the recent wave of defection from Mormonism.

  18. Clark,
    I understand that “the percentage of Mormons is staying stable relative to the US population.” I was trying to point out that the percentage of Mormons relative to the US population would be growing if the number of people joining the Church equaled the number of people leaving it since the Mormon birthrate is higher than the national average. Since the percentage of Mormons is staying stable, rather than growing, there must be more people leaving the church than joining.

    I didn’t question what Mormon’s know about the world. I assert that through the Church’s programs young Mormon’s are largely shielded from complete historical and scriptural context until they are deeply invested in the church. The content of the seminary manuals and approved missionary library provide ample examples of this. The ‘topics’ essays would not be noteworthy if the Church material that is actually used (Sunday school manuals, seminary manuals, mission literature) were adequate. I’m not trying to make a judgment on whether this is right. I’m simply stating that due to this reality, it does not surprise me that the Church’s membership numbers have held up better than other Christian denominations despite the proliferation of negative information on the internet.

    Is the internet primarily responsible for decreased retention? I don’t think the data available to us is sufficient to make an adequately informed judgment. Regardless, I strongly suspect that if information found on the internet is not the primary reason for a member leaving, it is a secondary factory that often provides significant support to whatever the primary reason is.

  19. Miles, someone should point out that your math doesn’t work out at all. Since immigration is a larger factor in U.S. population growth than births, the church could grow robustly in numbers even while shrinking as a percentage of the population. That the percentage is holding steady likely suggests the opposite of what you think it does, as “immigration” – people joining the church – is also the larger factor in church membership growth.

    The other part of your argument make a similar assumption that the church teaching its message prevents young Mormons from learning anything else. The missionary program is a good example – all you see is the restricted reading list, but you’re missing the hours spent every day talking to people who disagree with the church’s message, are often better read and educated, and sometimes quite willing to explain their views.

    Xander, unrepresentative samples are unrepresentative. A self-selected sample that has been fed on priming effects over a long period of time is not going to tell you anything useful about any other population.

  20. Rick, one could well argue though that changes in Utah population is due to the influx of non-Mormons. The percent of the state that self-identifies as Mormon according to Pew was 55%. That means you have that changing peer group effect. As I said, the internet may well have affected that as well. But I suspect the biggest effect is just the changing demographic which has a feedback aspect to it.

    It’s also interesting to ask about the effect of politics on disaffiliation. Utah and Idaho are overwhelmingly Republican and Mormons therein particularly so. Yet among the young there’s obvious dissatisfaction with how the GOP has developed the past decade. According to Jana Reiss’ data social issues appear to be a major factor driving people away. I can see that political polarization affecting people particularly in Utah during these Trump years.

    The second point you raise is I think tied to that peer effect I noted. That is nominal members would would have identified as Mormon because everyone was Mormon now don’t. The increase in non-members both from immigration and also disaffiliation then increases that. I’d expect that trend to be coming to more of an end, but you still have these other peer effects at work.

    Miles, Jonathan raised the point I would make. The LDS birthrate isn’t that high to be able to keep up with national growth. Particularly after the drop due to the recession I noted. To your other point, while I didn’t grow up in Utah even the year I spent here during my father’s Sabbatical suggested hearing all the typical anti-Mormon stuff was pretty common. About the only difference I saw from life on the east coast was that at that time in Utah people would still go to church despite having zero desire to act like a Mormon. Back home people just left the Church. It’s that effect that I think has changed. Now people just leave the Church they way they did outside the Mormon corridor.

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