Posts

Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.

References

Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic […], and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

By Pavol Kosnac, Oxford University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 30 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ryan Cragun on Mormonism, Growth and Decline (28 January 2013).

As Professor Cragun suggests in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Mormonism in USA has, from the viewpoint of sociology, undergone a process of socialization. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints are generally on the edge, and probably even within,  wider public acceptance. They are considered to be a truly American religion; they have been there for some 180 years, which is longer than many Christian evangelical groups, which nowadays consist  largely of Pentecostals (the youngest members of the evangelical family), and they are considered to be conservative, defenders of family values, and an important part of the Republican voting base. However, the same factors that may have granted Mormons respectability in USA, may prevent them from gaining it elsewhere any time soon. I will focus on Europe, since this is area in which I have most practical experience in general, and particularly with Latter-Day Saints.

In Europe, LDS members are still mostly well known for one characteristic, which has not been a valid stereotype for about 120 years – that is, that they engage in polygamy. People, especially in non-English speaking countries, do not yet recognise their typical uniform – white shirt, dark trousers, name badge –  and often mix them up with Jehovah´s Witnesses, mostly because they, same as Mormon missionaries, always move in pairs and want to talk about Jesus, and partially – especially in areas east  of Germany – because Jehovah´s Witnesses are generally the only contextually well-known religious movement that does this kind of mission (stopping people on street, house to house mission). This small mistake can damage their cause before they even speak to someone. Besides some anti-American sentiment in parts of European society, I would agree with some of the missionaries I have talked to, who said that the America-centric nature of their message is somehow damaging for their mission on several levels. Many people, who would possibly be interested in a new version of the Christian message, when told that Jesus will come to Salt Lake City, or that Lehi’s family (from the biblical tribe of  Manasseh) floated to America to build the true Christianity there, consider these details too much to bear, break contact and stop coming to the meetings.

The problem with applying terms like ‘new religious movements’ to movements that are approaching 200 years of existence is obvious, even if the term is not only descriptive of age. Yet, however disputable this may be in the Americas, it is not in Europe. In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic (for other Christians absolutely heretical), and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area – from their American Pentecostal compatriots to new and ‘westernized’ types of far-east inspired spiritual groups

I would agree with Professor Cragun that most people in Europe, as in the US, who start to become more interested in Mormonism and consider entering it, are of lower socio-economic standing, especially in new Mormon mission areas. My personal experiences relate to Prague and Bratislava, where this is true for at least 70% of new members. Another constituency of members that you can meet at regular Sunday gatherings are students and foreigners, a large number of whom do not speak language of their country of residence very well and/or do not have another community there. In these cases, the Mormon community – traditionally very welcoming – may attract them as a friendly (if small) social group, where they can belong.

To disagree with Professor Cragun, however,  I would question some of the reasons which he considers important factors influencing the low membership retention rate: namely,  sexual conservatism, such as opposing pre-marital sex, cohabitation, and restricting pornography and practiced homosexuality. Mormons are not particularly special in these requirements; the same rules can be found in the most conservative of Protestant or Catholic groups, many of whom have very high retention rates.  If there is not another specific which makes conservative sexual ethics somehow more problematic for members of the LDS church, I would be quite sceptical of the influence of this factor upon membership retention.

On the other hand, I would certainly agree with the problems surrounding counting new members  by baptism. During my field research in Bratislava, it appear to me that becoming a member is not a very complicated process, with much less involved than I would have expected after having the official church regulations for membership explained to me by several ex-members. It seemed to me to be possible to be interested in the idea of converting, or to only enjoy the very nice and welcoming social atmosphere, yet leave after several months, having been baptised during that time. If what Professor Cragun said is true, which I have no reason to doubt, that “once a Mormon, until the age of 110 a Mormon“, then their membership numbers may be very highly inflated, and not only in USA, but also in Europe, where Mormon groups seem to have very small numbers indeed.

Success of LDS missionaries in converting Europeans is generally very small. The only large official numbers are in the United Kingdom – where, according to an LDS webpage, it has 188 000 members. Problems with these number will probably be same as problems with US numbers. Other states in Western Europe have several tens of thousands, in other parts of Europe it is from several thousand to several hundred. In some western European countries,  Mormon missionaries have been active for more than 150 years (in Britain, for example, they have been since1837). In terms of mere numbers, in comparison to younger groups who come from the USA, like Jehovah´s Witnesses or Assemblies of God, this has not been a  very successful mission.

Finally, there may be also other local specifics that inflate the numbers, for example, in Slovak case, the “phantom Mormons“. The phenomenon which I call ”phantom membership“ happened in Slovakia´s last national census in 2011, where 972 people identified themselves as Mormons. This was an unbelievable number, since I know the situation of Mormons in Slovakia very well. I have never seen more than 50 practicing Mormons in their biggest Slovak group, and when I talked to several Slovak missionaries and representatives, their estimates of the number of Mormons in Slovakia were never higher than 300, and they also suggested that the results from census were very surprising for them also. I think that a possible explanation might be that, because Mormons are little known in Slovak environment, and their official name is generally unknown, when they were listed in the census options (for first time in Slovak history), many non-denominational Christians who were not sure what box to tick, and may not have wanted to tick the “Other“ box, saw “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints“ and ticked the box with ”Church of Jesus Christ“, filtering out the rest of the name since they had no idea what it meant means, but it sounded about right (no other registered church in Slovakia has “Jesus Christ” in its name). It is possible that this hypothesis is incorrect, but if not it would explain those almost 700 invisible Mormons, which even the most optimistic church officials never knew they “had”.

In summary, we can conclude, that official LDS estimates of Mormon demography are strongly inflated in Europe , just as in the Americas. Many of the advantages that Mormons have in the USA because of their unique “American-ness” may become more of a burden in Europe, and because of this their retention rate may be worse in Europe than in the USA. One way or another, it is difficult to imagine how LDS Church officials could consider the Mormon mission to Europe a success.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Pavol Kosnac completed his B.A. and M.A. in Religious Studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, and studies of political philosophy, jurisprudence and ethics at Collegium of Anton Neuwirth. He is currently studying for a MSt. In the Study of Religion at Oxford University and applying for DPhil studies. His focus is mainly on the study of new religiosity, new religious movements and non-religiosity in (but not exclusively) central and eastern Europe, and the methodology of research in these categories in general.

 

References:

LDS official membership information by country:

http://www.ldschurchnews.com/almanac/1/Almanac.html, accessed 12.1.2013

Information on Slovak national poll from Slovak statistical Institute:

http://portal.statistics.sk/files/tab-14.pdf

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.

Podcasts

Ours Can Be To Reason Why

Lynn Davidman’s recent RSP interview illustrates why her work is important, serious, and engaging.  As I listened to the podcast, three ideas came to mind.

First, I was delighted to hear Davidman describe much of the literature on conversion and deconversion as Christian-centric.  While I think she could have made this point even more compellingly in the podcast, it is an important point that is rarely considered in the social scientific research on religion.  Davidman argued that the term “apostasy” doesn’t work well for Jews because their religiosity is more about practice and identity than it is about faith.  Faith and belief are central to Christianity, particularly Protestant Christianity, as “right views” (to steal a phrase from Buddhism) are more important than “right actions” (to steal another). Davidman argued that the inverse is true in Judaism, though beliefs do matter at some level, as she noted with Spinoza, whose heresy regarding the nature of God resulted in his excommunication from the Sephardic synagogue in Amsterdam in 1656.  The language and thinking about conversion and “deconversion” prominent in most of the scientific literature does focus heavily on what people think or believe rather than what they do.  This is even observed among prominent critics of religion and leaders of New Atheism, as Richard Dawkins has admitted to celebrating Christmas and enjoying Christmas carols.  I think the more important point here, however, is that Davidman could have taken this point even further by noting that “conversion” is always toward religion, while “deconversion” or “becoming ex-” is always away from religion.  As Joseph Hammer and I pointed out in a paper we published in 2011, this use of language continues to privilege religion over nonreligion.  How is leaving religion substantively different from joining a religion?  What is different about the process?  If both require changes in beliefs, practices, social networks, and overall worldviews, why do we privilege one as “conversion” and the other as “deconversion” or “becoming an ex-“?  While perspectives about conversion are Christian-centric, the idea of conversion itself is religion-centric.

Second, Davidman’s incorporation of gender into the process of conversion is another important insight to take away from this podcast.  Converts to religion or away from it don’t just learn how to become a good member of their new group.  They learn to how to become a good male or female member of their new group.  Davidman also noted that what it typically means to be a devout member of a religious group is what is expected of men, not of women.  This is an important insight deriving from intersectionality; the experience of religious conversion (toward or away from religion) is not just a religious experience, but also a gendered experience.  Whenever someone joins a group, they learn not just the expectations for group membership, but also the expectations for the members of the group who are like them (e.g., in terms of class, gender, race, sexual identity, etc.).  I think Davidman could have extended this argument a bit further as well.  Beyond forcing those who want to be part of a religious group or organization to adopt gender roles, it is important to recognize that many religions have helped create the very idea of gender and continue to reinforce it (see Sumerau, Cragun, and Mathers forthcoming).  Davidman’s critique of the gendering of conversion processes can be extended by asking how such processes would work for transgender, agender, or genderqueer individuals.  How might a genderqueer individual (someone who rejects the gender binary and tries not to do gender or does it in a new, non-binary way) experience conversion?  What are the expected beliefs and behaviors of a genderqueer Jew or transgender Methodist?  If such expected beliefs or behaviors don’t readily come to mind, that is because binary conceptions of gender are central to most religious sacred canopies.

Third and finally, I liked how Davidman drew a distinction between Weberian and Durkheimian approaches to studying the social world.  The Durkheimian approach is to find the general in the particular, while the Weberian approach is to find the particular in the general.  Davidman, drawing on Weber and Geertz, situated her work in the local and noted that she prefers not to ask “why” people do what they do but rather “how” they do it.  How people leave Orthodox Judaism is important to understand.  But I’m also not convinced that “why” is irrelevant.  I do find compelling the growing body of research suggesting that humans create post hoc justifications for their behavior to make their behavior seem more rational rather than actually acting rationally. However, I don’t think there is anything wrong with trying to discover why humans do what they do.  People’s initial responses as to why they did something may not be accurate as they, themselves, may not know why they did something.  But isn’t there something useful in knowing how people construct narratives that explain their behaviors?  Whether or not the stories people tell to explain their behavior are 100% accurate, they are the stories people tell.  Social scientists may not be able to discern “actual” motives from “believed” or “constructed” motives without the help of neuroscience or other as yet undiscovered methodologies and technologies, but we can come to understand more about how people think by asking them to construct a narrative that explains “why.”  Additionally, while there is value in understanding the particular, there is also value in understanding the general.  Asking people why they leave religions may not perfectly reflect their motivations, but it may offer some insights into how they viewed the process.  Asking why can be problematic in that, if it does reflect general processes, it could be used to try to staunch the flow of people out of religion, as seems to be the aim of a sizable percentage of prior research on people exiting religion (Cragun and Hammer 2011). But it could also be argued that the growing secular movement could use these general understandings of why people leave religion to heighten the flow of people out of religion.  Whether or not one prefers to prevent or facilitate the flow of people in or out of religion, those of us who study religion scientifically should recognize that our work can be and often is applied by those with vested interests in what we study.

References

Cragun, Ryan T., and Joseph H. Hammer. 2011. “‘One Person’s Apostate is Another Person’s Convert’: Reflections on Pro-Religious Hegemony in the Sociology of Religion.” Humanity & Society 35(February/May):149-175.

Sumerau, J. Edward, Ryan T. Cragun, and Lain A. B. Mathers. forthcoming. “Contemporary Religion and the Cisgendering of Reality.” Social Currents.

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic […], and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area

Mormons demographics on the other side of the big puddle

By Pavol Kosnac, Oxford University

Published by the Religious Studies Project, on 30 January 2013 in response to the Religious Studies Project Interview with Ryan Cragun on Mormonism, Growth and Decline (28 January 2013).

As Professor Cragun suggests in his interview with the Religious Studies Project, Mormonism in USA has, from the viewpoint of sociology, undergone a process of socialization. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints are generally on the edge, and probably even within,  wider public acceptance. They are considered to be a truly American religion; they have been there for some 180 years, which is longer than many Christian evangelical groups, which nowadays consist  largely of Pentecostals (the youngest members of the evangelical family), and they are considered to be conservative, defenders of family values, and an important part of the Republican voting base. However, the same factors that may have granted Mormons respectability in USA, may prevent them from gaining it elsewhere any time soon. I will focus on Europe, since this is area in which I have most practical experience in general, and particularly with Latter-Day Saints.

In Europe, LDS members are still mostly well known for one characteristic, which has not been a valid stereotype for about 120 years – that is, that they engage in polygamy. People, especially in non-English speaking countries, do not yet recognise their typical uniform – white shirt, dark trousers, name badge –  and often mix them up with Jehovah´s Witnesses, mostly because they, same as Mormon missionaries, always move in pairs and want to talk about Jesus, and partially – especially in areas east  of Germany – because Jehovah´s Witnesses are generally the only contextually well-known religious movement that does this kind of mission (stopping people on street, house to house mission). This small mistake can damage their cause before they even speak to someone. Besides some anti-American sentiment in parts of European society, I would agree with some of the missionaries I have talked to, who said that the America-centric nature of their message is somehow damaging for their mission on several levels. Many people, who would possibly be interested in a new version of the Christian message, when told that Jesus will come to Salt Lake City, or that Lehi’s family (from the biblical tribe of  Manasseh) floated to America to build the true Christianity there, consider these details too much to bear, break contact and stop coming to the meetings.

The problem with applying terms like ‘new religious movements’ to movements that are approaching 200 years of existence is obvious, even if the term is not only descriptive of age. Yet, however disputable this may be in the Americas, it is not in Europe. In Europe, Mormons are new religious movement par excellence – they are new to the area, their numbers are very small, they have no social respectability, their doctrines are considered strange and exotic (for other Christians absolutely heretical), and all of these characteristics place them on the same level as other small groups that are trying to settle in the European area – from their American Pentecostal compatriots to new and ‘westernized’ types of far-east inspired spiritual groups

I would agree with Professor Cragun that most people in Europe, as in the US, who start to become more interested in Mormonism and consider entering it, are of lower socio-economic standing, especially in new Mormon mission areas. My personal experiences relate to Prague and Bratislava, where this is true for at least 70% of new members. Another constituency of members that you can meet at regular Sunday gatherings are students and foreigners, a large number of whom do not speak language of their country of residence very well and/or do not have another community there. In these cases, the Mormon community – traditionally very welcoming – may attract them as a friendly (if small) social group, where they can belong.

To disagree with Professor Cragun, however,  I would question some of the reasons which he considers important factors influencing the low membership retention rate: namely,  sexual conservatism, such as opposing pre-marital sex, cohabitation, and restricting pornography and practiced homosexuality. Mormons are not particularly special in these requirements; the same rules can be found in the most conservative of Protestant or Catholic groups, many of whom have very high retention rates.  If there is not another specific which makes conservative sexual ethics somehow more problematic for members of the LDS church, I would be quite sceptical of the influence of this factor upon membership retention.

On the other hand, I would certainly agree with the problems surrounding counting new members  by baptism. During my field research in Bratislava, it appear to me that becoming a member is not a very complicated process, with much less involved than I would have expected after having the official church regulations for membership explained to me by several ex-members. It seemed to me to be possible to be interested in the idea of converting, or to only enjoy the very nice and welcoming social atmosphere, yet leave after several months, having been baptised during that time. If what Professor Cragun said is true, which I have no reason to doubt, that “once a Mormon, until the age of 110 a Mormon“, then their membership numbers may be very highly inflated, and not only in USA, but also in Europe, where Mormon groups seem to have very small numbers indeed.

Success of LDS missionaries in converting Europeans is generally very small. The only large official numbers are in the United Kingdom – where, according to an LDS webpage, it has 188 000 members. Problems with these number will probably be same as problems with US numbers. Other states in Western Europe have several tens of thousands, in other parts of Europe it is from several thousand to several hundred. In some western European countries,  Mormon missionaries have been active for more than 150 years (in Britain, for example, they have been since1837). In terms of mere numbers, in comparison to younger groups who come from the USA, like Jehovah´s Witnesses or Assemblies of God, this has not been a  very successful mission.

Finally, there may be also other local specifics that inflate the numbers, for example, in Slovak case, the “phantom Mormons“. The phenomenon which I call ”phantom membership“ happened in Slovakia´s last national census in 2011, where 972 people identified themselves as Mormons. This was an unbelievable number, since I know the situation of Mormons in Slovakia very well. I have never seen more than 50 practicing Mormons in their biggest Slovak group, and when I talked to several Slovak missionaries and representatives, their estimates of the number of Mormons in Slovakia were never higher than 300, and they also suggested that the results from census were very surprising for them also. I think that a possible explanation might be that, because Mormons are little known in Slovak environment, and their official name is generally unknown, when they were listed in the census options (for first time in Slovak history), many non-denominational Christians who were not sure what box to tick, and may not have wanted to tick the “Other“ box, saw “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints“ and ticked the box with ”Church of Jesus Christ“, filtering out the rest of the name since they had no idea what it meant means, but it sounded about right (no other registered church in Slovakia has “Jesus Christ” in its name). It is possible that this hypothesis is incorrect, but if not it would explain those almost 700 invisible Mormons, which even the most optimistic church officials never knew they “had”.

In summary, we can conclude, that official LDS estimates of Mormon demography are strongly inflated in Europe , just as in the Americas. Many of the advantages that Mormons have in the USA because of their unique “American-ness” may become more of a burden in Europe, and because of this their retention rate may be worse in Europe than in the USA. One way or another, it is difficult to imagine how LDS Church officials could consider the Mormon mission to Europe a success.

This material is disseminated under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. and can be distributed and utilised freely, provided full citation is given.

About the Author:

Pavol Kosnac completed his B.A. and M.A. in Religious Studies at Comenius University in Bratislava, and studies of political philosophy, jurisprudence and ethics at Collegium of Anton Neuwirth. He is currently studying for a MSt. In the Study of Religion at Oxford University and applying for DPhil studies. His focus is mainly on the study of new religiosity, new religious movements and non-religiosity in (but not exclusively) central and eastern Europe, and the methodology of research in these categories in general.

 

References:

LDS official membership information by country:

http://www.ldschurchnews.com/almanac/1/Almanac.html, accessed 12.1.2013

Information on Slovak national poll from Slovak statistical Institute:

http://portal.statistics.sk/files/tab-14.pdf

Mormonism, Growth and Decline

Mormonism – or the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) – exploded onto the scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the United States of America, and has courted controversy ever since. From the recent upsurge in worldwide visibility of Mormonism due to the widespread attention given to the religious identity of Mitt Romney (the Republican Candidate in the 2012 US Presidential elections), to the huge success of the Southpark creators’ hit musical The Book of Mormon, there is no shortage of ill-informed opinion surrounding this group. Unsurprisingly, the academic study of religion has its own questions about Mormonism: can it be described as a New Religious Movement? Is there a unified phenomenon which can be classified as Mormonism? Is Mormonism to be considered as a form of Christianity? This week, Chris is joined by Ryan Cragun – Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida – to discuss not only these conceptual issues, but issues relating specifically to quantitative research, Mormon demographics, and the worldwide growth and decline of the LDS Church.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. And if you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us, ‘Like’ us on Facebook, and/or follow us on Twitter.

What numbers should a quantitative scholar use when ‘counting’ Mormonism? Who does the categorization? Is Mormonism outside of the US different? In what ways? And what about Mormonism in the ‘heartland’ of Utah? These are just some of the questions which come up in the interview, and Professor Cragun provides a great introduction not only to Mormonism and quantitative research, but also to Mormon growth and decline in the context of the secularization thesis, and to the intricate relationships and correlations which can be observed between LDS membership and factors such as gender, employment, education, and ethnicity.

A number of papers are referred to in this interview, including Comparing the Geographic Distributions and Growth of Mormons, Adventists, and Witnesses, The Secular Transition: The Worldwide Growth of Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Seventh-day Adventists, and The Price of Free Inquiry in Mormonism, all of which can be accessed on Ryan’s personal website. Ryan Cragun is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Tampa, Florida. He is author and co-author of many peer-reviewed articles in the Journal of Contemporary Relgiion, Sociology of Religion, the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, and more, and is the co-author (with Rick Phillips) of Could I Vote for a Mormon for President? An Election Year Guide to Mitt Romney’s Religion (2012), and author of the forthcoming What You Don’t Know About Religion (but Should).

This interview was recorded in the business centre at the Lord Elgin Hotel, Ottawa during the Atheist Identities: Spaces and Social Contexts Conference. We are grateful to everyone who facilitated the recording in any way.