Sunday, August 2, 2009

...Along with some other minor details...

The other day a blog post drew my attention to both a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life and a very brief "news story" put out by AP that appeared in the Deseret News. I put "news story" in quotes because the whole story is seven sentences long, whereas the report given by the Pew Forum is several pages long and is broken down into three parts, and then subdivided even more (the "survey" that the news blurb "cites" is actually a report prepared from a larger survey of which the full report is 143 pages long). I don't care how good AP thinks their data compression may be, it's not that good. Furthermore the tiny news blurb only mentions three things from the survey: 1. Mormons are more likely than any other group to think that their values are threatened by Hollywood. 2. Mormons make up 1.7% of the total population of the US, roughly the same number as Jews. 3. Nine out of ten Mormons are white, while only 71% of the US is white.

Of all the very interesting things that the news writer could have included in his seven sentences, he chose those. I wonder why those three points were chosen over all the other interesting data. Perhaps the news writer wanted to imply that: 1. Mormons are paranoid. 2. Mormons are a very small, but powerful minority. 3. Mormons are racist.

Perhaps we should actually look at the survey and consider some of the more interesting results that a major news service will never tell us about. Apart from the ones already covered here, here are some rather interesting results from the report and the broader survey:

1. 91% of Mormons believe the Bible is the word of God. This is interesting considering a frequent and insistent criticism of Mormons is that they do not believe in the Bible, or as I found on a few websites (no I will not provide links) after a brief Google search, "The problem with Mormonism is that it contradicts, modifies, and expands on the Bible." and, "From a non-Mormon Christian perspective, the qualifications mentioned in the Mormon position are precisely why the answer would be no, they do not believe the Bible." and, "The Book of Mormon, Doctrines and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price, as well as the ongoing prophetic ministry of their leadership....absolutely contradict clear Biblical doctrine on many important points and so it in effect the Bible is not really authoritative for them as it stands." Just from these statements it would seem that Mormons have a problem with the Bible and do not really believe it, so why is it that when asked 91% say they believe the Bible. I think that this problem can be cleared up by the following graphic from the broader survey:
Sorry that might be a little small, but if you click on it you can see a larger version, or you can go find it here. So now my point. If so many Mormons say they believe the Bible then why are they so frequently accused of not believing it? The survey further breaks down the question of whether or not people believe the Bible/Koran/Torah/other into whether or not they hold to a literal, word-for-word interpretation of it. Herein lies the difference. As can be seen, 91% of Mormons believe the Bible, but only 35% believe it literally, word-for-word, while 57% believe in a non-literal interpretation. As can be seen this is very different (almost exactly reversed) from the beliefs of more "fundamental" Christians who also have a strong belief in the Bible as the word of God. This is also the conclusion noted by the Pew Forum report, and something missed by the news blurb. It is precisely this difference in how we view the Bible that creates the controversy over whether or not Mormons actually believe the Bible.

As a side note, the root of the controversy comes from the Eighth Article of Faith which states, "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly". As I noted it is not the first part that causes the controversy but rather the second part, "as it is translated correctly". Oddly enough this part that causes the controversy is in line with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy which many Evangelicals use to define what they mean by the Bible being literally true word for word (i.e. inerrant). Further reading on this matter can be found in How Wide the Divide by Graig L. Blomberg and Stephen E. Robinson, Chapter 1 on Scripture.

2. Mormon religious belief and practice is "exceptional".
3. The more formal education Mormons have the more devoted they are, or as it is put in the Pew Forum report, "Looking at religion's importance through the lens of education level, patterns among Mormons are the reverse of what is seen among the general population." Here is some of the data:
Granted the margin of error is not the best on these data but from the broader survey it seems to be something consistent and worthy of notice. This would mean that contrary to popular belief more education does not always correlate with deceased religious devotion. Also as someone who studies physics for a living I would have to say that the "controversy", "fight" or "debate" between science and religion is not as pronounced in the Church as it is from other Christian religions. There are a few members who question the efficacy of science, but by and large members of the Church are more open to science and learning than any other religion that I know of. Also as a side note, according to the survey Mormons tend to be more educated than the general population.

4. Now after what I mentioned in #3 we have this, "When asked about the theory of evolution, only 22% of Mormons say it is the best explanation for human life, with three-in-four (75%) disagreeing. Only among one other major religious tradition - Jehovah's Witnesses (90%) - does a higher proportion disagree that evolution is the best explanation for human life." This difference is striking. If Mormons are well educated and if they tend to be more devoted the more education they have, then why do they not believe in evolution. I have two answers for that: the theory of evolution has some serious scientific and rational issues (I should write a post about them some time, but I will not go into them here), and Mormons already have a religion and they don't want/can't have another religion.

5. Political party affiliation and Ideology, this graph speaks for itself:
The R^2 value may be large but there is a trend and Mormons are at the one extreme end of it. Or as the Pew report puts it, "This places Mormons to the right of all other major religious traditions on a continuum of ideology and partisanship". Also interesting in this is that members who are "less active" or "inactive" as we say in the Church tend to be more liberal, in favor of big government and pro-abortion. Again from the report,

"Political and social views are linked with church attendance among Mormons, as among the general population. Those who attend services at least once a week are more than 30 percentage points more likely than Mormons who attend less frequently to be Republican (73% vs. 39%) and oppose legal abortion (78% vs. 44%). In fact, among those who attend church less often, opinion leans in the opposite direction on these two items; pluralities of those who attend church less than once a week are Democrats (40%) and favor legal abortion (49%). The same is true with regard to opinion on the size of government; among weekly attenders, 61% support a smaller government while 31% prefer a larger government, and among less-frequent attenders, just 37% prefer a smaller government while 53% prefer a bigger government."

Thus according to this data there is an inverse correlation between church participation and liberal tendencies. This means that if you do a survey with a selective bias towards "active" church members (those that attend every week, say prayers and read the scriptures every day) then the church would be a lot less liberal and in the graph above the dot denoting Mormons would be even higher up in "conservative" territory. I find it interesting that on average we are more conservative than "Conservative Evangelical Christians".

I could mention a few more but this post is already long enough and if I have not already interested you already (or made you board enough) to go check out the actual report I would encourage you to do so. There are several more interesting points about foreign relations, and whether or not military force is appropriate, the demographics of new converts (yes a lot of members are white, but the number of converts who are minorities is more indicative of the general population. By noting that most members of the Church in the US are white is like looking at the descendants of a group of Northern European immigrants and saying, "My! But they are all white! They must be racist!") OK I better stop now, but seriously I would recommend actually looking at the report rather than reading any news story about it. It is quite good, and I would recommend looking at the full survey, you might learn a few things that you didn't know. I did.

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