Are religious schools like BYU at risk of losing accreditation over same-sex marriage?

hi-trinity-western-852-twu

Last week, a superior court in the province of Ontario upheld a decision allowing the Law Society of Upper Canada to deny accreditation to a Christian law school, on the grounds that its Community Covenant, which requires abstention from sex outside (husband-wife) marriage, is a violation of the rights of gay and lesbian students. Trinity Western University, the third oldest university in British Columbia, has found little sympathy among the Canadian public and political class, and is unlikely to win any future legal appeals. The school’s administration has signalled that, if forced, it will cancel the opening of the law school rather than alter the Community Covenant.

While the decision applies to an ecumenical Christian institution in Canada, the significance for American Mormons is straightforward: the sexual standards in the Honor Code at Brigham Young University are virtually identical to those in Trinity Western’s Community Covenant. Is it possible, a Latter-day Saint might reasonably wonder, that in a decade or so BYU will find its own accreditation threatened amidst the legal aftershocks of same-sex marriage?

In the balance of considerations that can be weighed while guessing the likelihood of a threat to BYU’s accreditation (or tax-exempt status), there’s a major one on the side of optimism: the fact that of any country in the world, the United States has the most robust tradition of religious liberty. As a result, the Canadian decision on TWU is not necessarily a ten-year warning bell for BYU. But there are other facts to consider:

  1. The Canadian decision did acknowledge the religious liberty interest of the university in establishing religious standards as a way of promoting the “collective practice” of Protestant Christianity. Its decision was simply that the sexual liberty of gay and lesbian students—framed in the decision as non-discrimination—was more important.
  2. Similar reasoning is being used more and more often in US decisions. So far it has only been applied to religious individuals and businesses. The line between religious businesses and schools has been blurred before in discrimination cases, however, as when the Supreme Court stripped Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status in 1983.
  3. Conservatives in Canada in 2005 were assured that legal same-sex marriage would not lead to religious liberty conflicts, so present assurances that US law won’t allow threats to accreditation are hard to interpret as permanent.
  4. Accreditation is granted by quasi-private bodies. The council that accredits BYU acts under the regulatory authority of the Department of Education, but is probably not bound as strictly by the First Amendment as a government actor would be.
  5. As of last month, marriage to someone of the same sex is a fundamental constitutional right in the United States, and the weights of jurisprudence are likely to shift as a result. It’s unclear whether the First Amendment automatically beats the Fourteenth in conflict, especially as the cultural climate becomes more secular by the year.

When confronted with these kinds of scenarios, there are two canonical (and contradictory) responses among Mormons who support same-sex marriage: denial and approval. Rod Dreher, in a more generally Christian context, named the phenomenon:

The Law Of Merited Impossibility is an epistemological construct governing the paradoxical way overclass opinion makers frame the discourse about the clash between religious liberty and gay civil rights. It is best summed up by the phrase, “It’s a complete absurdity to believe that Christians will suffer a single thing from the expansion of gay rights, and boy, do they deserve what they’re going to get.”

While Dreher’s point is made partly for snark’s sake, it should hit close to home in the online Mormon world. More than that, the point matters quite a bit, because the way that American Mormons approach the question of religious freedom could affect the ability of institutions like BYU to operate freely in the coming years and decades.

In April, Elder Hales, speaking at General Conference, left little room for either half of Dreher’s law. In response to those who deny that the space for religious exercise is shrinking:

The general lack of respect for religious viewpoints is quickly devolving into social and political intolerance for religious people and institutions.

As we face increased pressure to bow to secular standards, forfeit our religious liberties, and compromise our agency, consider what the Book of Mormon teaches about our responsibilities.

And to those who don’t mind the encroachment, he insists that it is the duty of Latter-day Saints to push back:

Brothers and sisters, we are responsible to safeguard these sacred freedoms and rights for ourselves and our posterity. …

[I]n your individual capacity, join with others who share our commitment to religious freedom. Work side by side to protect religious freedom.

This is the same narrative that church leaders have been telling at least since 1995, when The Family: A Proclamation to the World was announced in General Conference.

It’s worth acknowledging that, for more skeptical listeners, this language can come across hyperbolic. After all, it’s true that we are manifestly free from fear of persecution in our daily lives as Mormons, at least in most countries where members live. But it’s not enough to point out, as is so often pointed out, that the chance of clergy being forced to perform same-sex ceremonies is remote. This is the most obvious hypothetical conflict of same-sex marriage and religious liberty to come to mind, and maybe the subject of the shrillest paranoia from some members. But it would be a mistake to let it obscure the many realistic ways that the scope of religious exercise could be threatened in the coming years. Among these, the institutional marginalization of BYU is one possibility. Threats to religious tax exemptions could be next in line.

The reason, I think, for denial of the danger on the one hand and apathy on the other is a misunderstanding of what same-sex marriage really means. The degendering of marriage must eventually affect everyone because it both represents and affirms a novel worldview, one in which men and women are interchangeable, human relationships are ordered toward sex and the individual’s identity is authoritative in legal matters. Same-sex marriage lies along the road that was paved by no-fault divorce, premarital sex and legal elective abortion, and other signposts are now appearing ahead.

But regardless of whether we accept this characterization, we will likely soon be forced to accept that some of our liberties are at stake. The cultural and legal space we find ourselves occupying will be no bigger than what we decide now to claim.

Re-examining gay Mormon youth and suicide: What does the data say?

salt-lake-city-downtown-2[1]Do young Latter-day Saints, and especially gay youth, commit suicide at a higher rate than other youth in the US? The short answer: with the data we have, we don’t know. So what do we know for sure?

The Mormon teen suicide problem

Some readers may have read a recent interview in the Huffington Post with Wendy Williams Montgomery, a Californian mom and LGBT advocate. In the interview, Montgomery refers to a widely recognized problem within Mormon culture: the high rate of suicides among gay youth. “Mormons,” Montgomery asserts, “have the highest rate of gay teen suicides in the country.”

Over the last few years, the idea that Mormons have a problem with teen suicide, especially among gay youth, has become common wisdom. In 2012, a Reuters article highlighted the issue of gay teen suicide in Utah. The Huffington Post has featured the issue multiple times, as in a 2012 post. High-profile Mormon critic John Dehlin frequently discusses gay teen suicide among Mormons, and recently referred to the phenomenon as an epidemic. His characterization seems to fit the general impression: Mormons have a special problem with suicide among gay teens.

Missing data

There is no question that gay teen suicide is a reality among Mormon youth. In many cases, we have heard their stories, either through media or personal experience. Fortunately, we are more aware of this reality than we were in the past.

Unfortunately, however, these stories seem to be accompanied, more and more frequently, by statistical claims that are not supported by data. Mrs. Montgomery’s assertion that Mormons have the highest gay teen suicide rate in the country is unsourced in the original interview, and other blogs and outlets making similar claims are also missing sources. I surveyed all the government and health data I could find on youth suicide in the United States, and was unable to find any agency that collects public data by religion or sexual orientation (data so specific would be very difficult to collect). In fact, the American Association of Suicidology’s LGBT Resource Sheet notes, “to date, there is no empirical data regarding the number of completed suicides within the LGBT community.” The claim appears to be fabricated.

Other claims to the effect that Mormons, or Utahns, have a unique or unusually acute problem with gay teen suicide, or even teen suicide, cannot be supported by any data I can find.

The data we do have

Much of the interest in Mormons and teen suicide seems to originate from a 2006 article in the Deseret News, a newspaper owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The article pointed out a few statistics about suicide that would have been surprising to most readers at the time. First, that Utah had the highest rate of suicide among males age 15-24. Second, that Utah had the 11th highest overall suicide rate in the United States. And third, that the youth suicide rate in Utah had tripled over the preceding half-century (in fact, this is true across the United States). The newspaper didn’t cite its sources, but all of the categories of statistics they refer to are available through the CDC and other federal sources and appear to be genuine.

What else do we know? The data in that report is now nine years old, so it’s worth taking stock of the current reality. I’ve collected a set of more recent figures below, from public data and representative surveys:

  • Utah’s suicide rate among people age 15-24 is 9th highest in the United States, among 47 states with reliable data (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s suicide rate among males age 15-24 is 7th highest, among 46 states with reliable data (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s suicide rate among females age 15-24 cannot be reported as the number of cases is smaller than 20 (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s overall suicide rate is 5th highest in the United States (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah is 29th out of 40 states with available data for the rate of high school students who have attempted suicide (not completed suicide) (CDC, 2013)
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Utahns age 10-17. (Utah Department of Health, 2012)
  • Across 9 sites surveyed (all in the Midwestern or Eastern US and California), lesbian and gay high school students had a rate of attempted suicide that was approximately 4 times higher than for straight students (CDC, 2011)
  • A representative survey of students in Grades 7-12 across the US using the Add-Health database found that Mormon gay teens reported significantly less depression and fewer suicidal thoughts than their nonreligious peers. (Add-Health, 2010)
  • The same survey found that religious gay teens had a lower attempted suicide rate than nonreligious gay teens (the number of cases did not allow for statistical significance, however).   [Update: These last two statistics came via an author and are unpublished. I have not been able to independently verify them, as I don’t have access to most of the Add-Health dataset. Take with a grain of salt! Thanks to Mike in the comments section for doing some digging!]

The following are additional relevant results from a small non-representative 2009 survey conducted by the Family Acceptance Project and affiliated researchers, included at the suggestion of commenters below.

  • Gay youth who experienced high levels of family rejection were 3.4 times as likely to attempt suicide, 2.8 times as likely to experience depression, and 1.7 times as likely to use illicit drugs than gay youth who experienced low levels of rejection. Note: Unfortunately, the researchers who wrote the original journal article misinterpreted odds ratio as relative risks, and accordingly reported higher numbers for the foregoing statistics (specifically 8, 6 and 3 times instead of the above figures). This appears to be a good faith error–misinterpretation of the odds ratio (a very unintuitive statistic) is extremely common, even among researchers. The journal article is restricted, but available here to those with institutional access. General information about misinterpreting odds ratios is here.

To the best of my knowledge, these statistics are the closest we can come to answering the statistical questions surrounding gay teen suicide among Mormons, or within Utah. Specifically targeted data on completed or attempted suicide among gay Mormon teens simply isn’t available.

The data speak well enough for themselves, but it’s worth pointing out that none of the relevant data points appear to justify an unusual suspicion about Utah (or, by extension, Mormons). This is especially true since the surprisingly strong link between high altitude and suicide rates has become well established. Among high-altitude states in the Rocky Mountain West, Utah appears to have overall rates within the average range, and youth rates slightly lower than the average. We have no empirical data specific to Utah for gay and lesbian youth, but we can assume that like other states, the rate of attempted suicide, and presumably completed suicide, is considerably higher than for straight youth.

It’s also worth noting that Utah’s overall suicide rate has increased relative to other states since 2006, while its youth suicide rate has fallen in comparison to other states. Furthermore, the Add-Health dataset mentioned above suggests that Mormon gay youth are relatively less at risk for suicide than nonreligious gay youth. [Update – I haven’t been able to independently verify this. See above.]

Conclusions

While only systematic recordkeeping and representative surveys can answer the questions we’re most interested in, we shouldn’t ignore anecdotal evidence about suicide. The sense among many concerned observers in Utah and elsewhere that the situation is bad and getting worse probably reflects an important reality. Youth suicide in the US has quickly gotten worse over the decades, and a disproportionate number of these suicides across the US, including within Utah, are among gay youth. Combined, these two trends might be giving an alarming impression to those concerned about the well-being of gay teens; an impression made locally that could be transformed into misplaced claims, such as Mrs. Montgomery’s. So her hypothesis–that Mormons in particular have an unusually severe problem with gay teen suicide—could possibly be an observer’s local interpretation of nationwide trends, but it cannot be supported or rejected by the data itself, as far as I can tell.

The hypothesis cannot be confirmed or rejected by theory, either. Many advocates who highlight the issue of suicide among Mormons do so within the framework of a particular narrative, at the center of which is the idea that Latter-day Saint sexual values are harmful. Since there is no data to support the assertion of abnormal suicide rates, the theory seems to be doing all the work. But there are other theories that could be put forth—Latter-day Saints could just as well hypothesize that robust Mormon families and supportive faith communities lead to lower rates of suicide among gay youth. But this would also be unjustified; it would be best for everyone to refrain from attempting to explain phenomena for which there isn’t evidence in the first place.

Those who believe in Latter-day Saint sexual values and those who do not should be able to agree: one youth suicide is too many, including among gay youth. Even if the Mormon problem is not unique, it is still a problem. We don’t need statistics, and certainly not unsourced statistics, to tell us this.

New Study: Gay marriage in Holland may have reduced marriage rates among … liberals?

For decades, conservative opponents of same-sex marriage have been making a brazen claim. Extending marriage rights to gay couples, they say, will weaken the marriage institution.

In the near-absence of reliable data, their arguments have relied almost entirely on hypothesis. However, a new study, published earlier this year in the social science journal Demography, could offer same-sex marriage opponents some of the first empirical evidence in support of their theories. If the study’s findings are correct, same-sex marriage in the Netherlands decreased the opposite-sex marriage rate in all but the most conservative groups.

The Theory

It’s not unanimous, but growing majorities in developed nations are now on board with the idea that same-sex marriage is a good thing. As of 2013, around 80% of Scandinavians, 63% of Canadians and 55% of Britons support same-sex marriage, according to a global Ipsos survey. Recently, the tide of public opinion has even turned in the United States, where a recent poll has support as high as 59%.

For supporters, it’s not difficult to see why the public has come around. The philosophical and moral case for same-sex marriage is compelling, as this conservative will admit. Defenses can be made in the name of freedom (why should we force people who love each other not to marry?), equality (traditional marriage laws turn gays into second class citizens) and the public good (who would be harmed by gay couples marrying?).

Opponents of same-sex marriage have been caught flat-footed, perhaps even dumbfounded, as marriage laws move past them in ways that would have been inconceivable just thirty years ago. They are often unable to explain exactly why they oppose same-sex marriage but aver that it remains bad policy at best, and morally wrong at worst. The phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding”, or an inability to explain one’s moral intuitions, is not unique to same-sex marriage opponents. The most common example: most Westerners (but not all) rightly oppose contracepted sex between siblings but are unable to articulate why they do. Getting stumped, then, does not make a person wrong, but it does mean that they will need to dig deeper to justify their beliefs.

Some advocates for the traditional definition of matrimony say they have done just that, catching a subtler vision of the marriage institution and promoting a corollary new case against same-sex marriage laws. Sherif Girgis, PhD candidate in philosophy and principal co-author of the 2012 book What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense along with Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson, argues that there are two public visions of marriage. The “conjugal view” sees marriage as oriented toward procreation. The “revisionist view” calls marriage a union oriented toward love and commitment, with procreation and childrearing an elective option. (See here for a lengthier explanation.)

Girgis argues that only the former view explains why marriage should be a public institution, because it enforces norms that arise from sexual reproduction. The latter view, then, would make marriage functionally indistinguishable from non-marital romantic unions. He contends that in order to coherently support same-sex marriage, advocates have had to adopt for themselves and promote to the public the revisionist view. This, he thinks, constitutes a removal from the public square of the only institution geared toward procreation. The implication is that the old (to some, outdated) norms that historically sprung up around procreation, as well as the motive to marry, will fade along with the old view, more than they have already done.

Despite Girgis’ and his coauthors’ new defense of the traditional marriage definition and a small renaissance of secular opposition to same-sex marriage, many conservatives seem to have given up fighting in the face of a near-monolithic public consensus. And while Girgis’ reasoning is not unsound, there has been little hard evidence to support his broader conclusion that same-sex marriage laws would harm marriage itself.

What everyone, on both sides of the issue, should admit is that the same-sex marriage debate has taken place in an empirical vacuum. For better or worse, the conversation has been about same-sex marriage the moral question, not same-sex marriage the public policy. While no empirical study can or should settle the question on its own, everyone interested should take careful consideration of the data that do exist.

The new study

The paper in question, “The Effect of Same-Sex Marriage Laws on Different-Sex Marriage: Evidence From the Netherlands“, by Mircea Trandafir, was published in February of this year in the journal Demography. The author attempted to find the effect on the marriage rate of a 1998 domestic partnership law and 2001 same-sex marriage law in the Netherlands. Its conclusions have mostly escaped attention—partly because of a vague abstract.

The paper contains two statistical analyses. The first is a regression on aggregate (country-level) data that compares the Netherlands to a control group of OECD countries over a number of years, while the second is a time series analysis of individual-level data. In the abstract, the author writes that according to the first model, “neither law had significant effects on either the overall or different-sex marriage rate”. This is true at the 5% level, but it’s worth noting (in the context of the entire paper) that the effect of the same-sex marriage law on the marriage rate was significant at the 10% level—implying that there is only a 1 in 10 chance that Dutch marriage rates in the absence of the same-sex marriage law would have fallen as much as they did in reality. The overall trend from 1988 until 2005 is described in the paper:

As expected, the actual rates are relatively close to the synthetic marriage rate [control group rate] between 1988 and 1997, the period used to construct the synthetic control. After the introduction of registered partnership, the three rates are all higher than the synthetic marriage rate, but they all fall below the synthetic rate at some point after 2001, the year in which same-sex marriage was legalized.

According to this first, aggregate-level analysis, while there is not enough statistical power to conclude with certainty, it appears that marriage rates rose slightly as a result of the 1998 domestic partnership law but were depressed by the 2001 same-sex marriage law.

The second regression of the paper is perhaps more valuable—it uses individual-level data, which allows for greater analytic nuance. In the abstract, the author concluded: “The effects of the two laws are heterogeneous, with presumably more-liberal individuals (as defined by their residence or ethnicity) marrying less after passage of both laws and potentially more-conservative individuals marrying more after passage of each law.”

This finding is true, but represents only a part of the main results of the analysis—furthermore, important context is left out. “Potentially more-conservative individuals”, as defined by the author, represent less than 10% of the Dutch population, while “more liberal individuals” make up more than 80%.

Trandafir also claimed in his abstract that the results of the individual-level analysis “confirm the findings in the aggregate analysis”. It’s unclear what he means by this, since the individual level-analysis did not estimate the overall effect of the laws (only by gender), and only measured the overall marriage rate (as opposed to the different-sex marriage rate).

Trandafir made the decision not to perform a regression for men and women combined, because women tend to marry at a younger age than men. The findings of his analysis are that the same-sex marriage law had essentially zero effect on the male first marriage rate overall, but a statistically significant negative effect on the female first marriage rate (i.e. the age-specific rate of first marriages in a person’s lifetime).

But the story becomes more interesting. In the conservative Dutch Bible Belt, which represents around 4% of the Dutch population, the regional effect of the law was to strongly increase the marriage rate for both men and women. The same goes for the 3% of Dutch who are Turkish or Moroccan. But for the vast majority of the population—that is to say, for native Dutch and especially for residents of the four largest cities—the effect of marriage laws was significantly negative for both men and women.

The Dutch royal family in April 2013

The Dutch royal family in April 2013

The regression is not directly interpretable quantitatively because of the complexity of the model; but for comparison, the effect on marriage rates of the law for women in the four largest cities, for example, was three times greater than the effect of actually living in the four largest cities. This suggests that the adjusted effect is large, since the marriage rate in the four largest cities is around 20% lower than in Holland overall (this is not to suggest that the law had a negative 60% effect, because the raw statistics are not controlled for demographic variables). The effect on the marriage rate for native Dutch men was a rate twice that of the year-to-year downward trend.

Somehow, it appears that the demographic groups most supportive of same-sex marriage—urbanites and native Dutch—are precisely the groups whose marriage rates declined in connection with the law. On the other hand, the conservative subcultures who were likely to oppose the 2001 law–Bible Belt residents, Turks and Moroccans–seem to have experienced a marriage rate renaissance as a result of it. Somewhere, Sherif Girgis is wide-eyed; his theory that the revisionist view of marriage undermines marriage seems to fit the data almost uncannily.

But the fact that makes these findings even more shocking is a bias in the data that causes the negative effect of the law to be underestimated, as the author admits: “identifying the spouse of all individuals is virtually impossible, and I am unable to distinguish between same-sex marriages and different-sex marriages. This induces a small upward bias in the estimate of the different-sex marriage rate after 2001.”

In other words, the gay marriage law did not just reduce the opposite-sex marriage rate, but the marriage rate overall. More explicitly, since we know that no same-sex marriages occurred prior to 2001, this means that, apart from the small conservative minority, the same-sex marriage law was associated with a drop in opposite-sex marriages that was larger than the rise in same-sex marriages.

The implications of these findings are stark. If this study is correct–and for the robustness of the methodology, it seems unlikely to be far off–then it is appropriate to suggest that same-sex marriage had the effect of decreasing the mainstream marriage rate among heterosexuals in the Netherlands, possibly by changing the way marriage was perceived.

There is a more hopeful story for advocates of civil unions, or marriages-in-all-but-name. In both the aggregate and individual analyses, domestic partnership laws had a neutral or small positive impact on the marriage rate, suggesting that it is not gay unions that have the potential to disrupt marriage culture, but the redefinition of marriage itself.

Conclusion

Caveats are in order after such claims. First, cultural differences between the Netherlands and other countries mean that the results cannot necessarily be extrapolated. Indeed, in a 2009 state by state analysis in the US, the authors found that a state’s gay union policy had no significant effect on marriage rates (it should be noted that the study did not separate civil unions from same-sex marriage).

However, Girgis’ theory might well explain this particular discrepancy. American religious conservatives are not the tiny minority they are in Holland. In the Netherlands, there has long been massive majority support for same-sex marriage, which may help explain the significant effects found in the Trandafir paper. It could be the case that the more people support same-sex marriage, the greater downward effect the law has on marriage rates–a troubling policy conundrum.

The larger caveat: it bears reiteration that these findings do not themselves justify a particular position on same-sex marriage. There is much more to be said, and at the end of the day, public policy is not only an empirical question; it is a social, philosophical and moral one as well. However, science, philosophy and morality are often found to intersect in the same place once the dust kicked up in a whirlwind of controversy has settled. Time will tell what conclusion future generations will draw. When it comes to culture wars, history has been known to vindicate both winners and losers.

Photo credit: “King of the Netherlands” by Tom Jutte, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Misogyny, horror, and why Millennials need to reform the internet

Something has gone very wrong with the internet. There now exists the clearest evidence yet that the darkest parts of internet culture might be responsible for the deaths of innocent people. An entire generation has shared in the social development of the web–that generation needs to begin reforming the online world they have created.

A subculture of women-hating

In the recent Santa Barbara killings, misogyny seems to have played a central part. The question remains, however: how did women-hating burst out into extreme violence like this, in the person of a young suburban man? More broadly, how do extreme social pathologies survive in our civil society? And where?

The Red Pill

Forums like The Red Pill are visited by thousands of men every day

Online communities seem to be part of the answer. PUAHate, Bodybuilding.com and the /r/TheRedPill forum on Reddit are online forums patronized by the killer. These sites, and similar hangouts, form an underworld of lonely internet users, mostly males in their twenties, who have built up for themselves a dangerous, misogynistic mythology.

Dragged out into the open, the degeneracy of their exchanges is laid bare.

“There is something mentally wrong with the way [women’s] brains are wired … they are incapable of reason or thinking rationally,” the killer was reported to say. With others, he talked about committing violent acts against women. In his case, the violence became real.

While the Santa Barbara killing spree is beyond tragic, a more recent act of web-inspired violence in Wisconsin, this one committed by preteens, is in some ways even more terrifying.

Online horror cults

Last Saturday, a 12 year-old girl was found by a cyclist at the edge of a park, alive but in desperate condition, having been stabbed 19 times. Two of her classmates, also 12, admitted to the attack, which took place after a sleepover. The girls had planned for months to murder their friend as a way to attract the attention of Slenderman, a popular paranormal monster in the “creepypasta” online subculture.

Slenderman

Doctored images like this one, featuring Slenderman, are popular on forums visited by the young Wisconsin attackers

Dozens of questions come to mind. How do young girls get to the point of attempting ritualistic murder? How do preteens, or anyone, find themselves caught up in cult worship of fictitious bogeymen?

The answer again lies online. Hundreds of thousands of internet users are involved in the Creepypasta Wiki, /r/Creepy and /r/NoSleep subreddits on Reddit and dozens of similar forums, where contributors trade literary and graphical depictions of the truly disturbing, in order to find a fearful pleasure in what seems to have become a pornography of horror.

The NoSleep subreddit asks for original, believable content on its homepage: “Remember: everything is true here, even if it’s not. Stories should be believable, but realistic fiction is permitted. Readers are to assume everything is true and treat it as such.”

This is the sort of community in which the Wisconsin middle school killers found themselves involved: an underground bazaar of realistic stories and well-doctored images of Slenderman and other dark figures, designed to provoke a genuine sense of fear.

Imagine a preteen watching horror films alone every night, each about the same eerie monster, without a parent to give comfort or context. Is it a stretch to think the child would start to believe what they were seeing? What is different about what is occurring in online communities?

Internet subcultures

But the problem is even broader than misogyny or horror: anonymous online communities have become havens for every kind of dangerous thinking.

There aren’t just atheist and religious thinkers on the internet; there are forums for people who bully religious people, or for young Muslims who learn to despise Western society. More than just pornographers, there exist fetishistic porn cults. Beyond racial prejudice, there are blogs and meme-dumps full of appalling hostility toward racial minorities; and “social justice warriors” on Tumblr who spend their online lives hurling screeds at “cishet” (cisgender heterosexual) white males. Teenage girls struggling with anorexia looking for help online will likely find the “pro-ana” underworld, which instead of giving healthy advice will tell youths how to hide their condition from their families.

With the help of coaching on internet forums, an awkward twenty-two year-old from California, who probably needed counselling or a role model, began to identify himself as an “incel” (involuntary celibate), an unappreciated “alpha male”, and a victim of female irrationality. Mental illness and chauvinism can’t fully explain his subsequent crimes: the internet seemed to play a crucial role in radicalizing his worldview.

Of course, radical subcultures are a minority of the world’s internet users. Furthermore, killers will come from an even smaller, usually mentally vulnerable subset. But these minorities are still large. More than 50,000 people subscribe to “The Red Pill” and almost half a million to “No Sleep”. It’s plausible that more acts of physical or emotional violence will come out of this cultural cesspool.

Millennials need to reform the internet

In order to mitigate the excesses of internet culture, the web should be shaped into a more mainstream medium. Violence and extremism online will never be stamped out, but they can be pushed to smaller, less accessible fringes of the web. Whatever legitimacy they claim can be taken away.computer

Perhaps reddit.com and other sites could be pressured to close off their darker corners—this has happened once before, when Reddit took down an extremely popular “jailbait”, or clothed child pornography, subreddit. ISPs could be asked to prioritize bandwidth away from sites where there is discussion of illegal activities.

The anonymous, decentralized internet has enabled the creation of unprecedented types of communities, and unprecedented sets of regulations might be required to deal with them. We wouldn’t tolerate nightly meetings of thousands of radical women-haters or Slenderman worshipers in our cities, and we shouldn’t tolerate it on our networks.

Changes to internet culture are unlikely to happen, however, while there exists a silent generational gap. When the parents of Millennials think of the internet, they think of Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia. When Millennials think of the internet, they’re also picturing Reddit, Tumblr, 4chan, and thousands of smaller sites which cater to particular flavors of extremism.

To save the millions of young people who are engaged in, or who are susceptible to engagement in online subcultures, the older generation needs to become fully aware of these communities. The younger generation, of which I am a part, needs to begin taking responsibility for the cultural wasteland it has created.

“Bad Religion” and Mormon Orthodoxy: A Letter to Ross Douthat

BadReligionCover

The following is a letter I recently sent to Ross Douthat.


Mr. Douthat,

I’m a young Mormon who spent much of his Sunday reading Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

I loved the book, and if I’m being honest, I might have loved it because it felt like a vindication of my own views on modern religious practice. But your book also gave me a clearer vision of how to move forward as a Christian and a Mormon in the contemporary world. I wanted to express to you how your thesis applies to my religion.

I won’t argue with you that Mormons are heretics to orthodox Christianity, in beliefs and practice. Our temple rites, modern prophets and additional scripture are unique and place us outside any conception of the mainstream. While we believe the church to be a restoration of the original Christian church, it is also true that our religion emerged abruptly in history, in a peculiarly American way.

However, as you mentioned toward the end of your book, Mormons are an unusual example of “vigor and cohesion”. You’ve probably read books like American Grace and are aware that Mormons show an almost unparalleled unity of doctrinal belief among religions in America. Moreover, we really live according to our faith, generally speaking, by paying tithes, involving ourselves in civic life, rejecting alcohol and drugs, remaining chaste, engaging in proselytizing, and studying scripture daily.

I have always felt that the strength of my religion comes from its members’ devotion to (Mormon) orthodoxy, even though our orthodoxy does not fit the Christian religion as it has been inherited from the past. I’m a student of economics and math, and not particularly well read in theology, but I have always felt stirred by words like Chesterton’s, including those you quoted in your book, which characterize orthodoxy as the precarious equilibrium of a man behind madly rushing horses, along a course interrupted by the obstacles of heresy.

This kind of orthodoxy is Mormonism to me, full of balances and syntheses: we are committed to being in the world, as we send out missionaries and devote ourselves to secular education, but we are also of a different world, rejecting contemporary philosophies when they contradict the teachings of Jesus. We are both enterprising and domestic, both outspoken and modest, both charitably disposed and inclined to call others to repentance. We keep a universal, or “eternal perspective”, but we do this by embracing very particular codes of conduct. We seek guidance in both tradition and revelation, in both the Jesus of the New Testament and in the living Christ who still speaks to his people.

We are a little like Catholics, never sacrificing our unity with, and fidelity to, the Church. But like Protestants, we are insistent about the necessity of an individual witness of the truth. We cherish the American ideals that allowed our religion to flourish but we love to watch the religion spread across the world. We worship with a democratic spirit wherein ordinary members, not preachers, speak in our services, and our leaders are unpaid laity—but we also defer to hierarchical authority, which we believe is the authority of God. We have a bit of a persecution complex, but also a conviction that we are in fact God’s chosen people, part of the Church of Jesus Christ, the kingdom to which the Lord will return.

Like the rest of Christianity, the Mormon struggle is as much against our own heretics as it is against secularism. While we have never faced the kind of existential collapse that has afflicted the Mainline churches, there is, in this internet age, a disproportionately loud chorus of well-meaning Mormon voices (along with disingenuous and cynical ones) telling Christ’s apostles that the church should catch up with the times (whatever that happens to mean in the current decade). My personal belief is a little bit Benedictine: I do not expect that the church will move away from orthodoxy, and I suspect that the tent of believers will shrink a little over the next decade or so before expanding again.

On the last page of Bad Religion you invited Americans to return to the Christian religion that is their heritage, and I welcome that call. I’m sure that, as a Catholic, you would rather move about in a country full of practising Presbyterians than lapsed Catholics, and I have similar sentiments. My invitation to you, one of the most important public religious voices in the United States, is not necessarily to expand your view of what orthodoxy is, but at least to take a longer look at the Latter-day Saints. I would be gratified to see you paint a truer portrait than the Glenn Beck-heavy one you painted in Bad Religion. This is, I think, a reasonable request in a world where a Mormon not only won a major party nomination for president, but lived perhaps the most “orthodox” religious lifestyle of any presidential candidate of the last half-century.

If you have gotten this far in this letter, I’m very grateful for your time. I’ll leave you with two links, which you can visit if you have the time and interest. The first is a recent sermon of apostle Jeffrey R. Holland to the worldwide church, which rings, as far as I can tell, in harmony with every teaching of the New Testament. The second is to my website, a collection of essays called Virtuous Society.

Thanks for your eloquent and essential voice.

Tom Stringham

Rethinking Mormons and Porn: Utah 40th in US in New Porn Data

Statistics tell stories, and this is something that Mormons know well. While many demographic indicators speak to the social health of Mormon culture, there are some that do not.

A well-known example: in 2009, a study found that Utah had the highest rate of online porn subscriptions of any state in the US. Latter-day Saints, who form a majority of Utah’s population, profess a belief in avoiding pornography.

New data, however, offer a conclusion opposite to the findings of the 2009 study, suggesting that Utah and other states with high Mormon populations have abnormally low rates of porn use.

Background

The Mormon blogosphere (or “Bloggernacle”) lit up with commentary after the release of the famous original study, and the conclusions of the paper became a focal point of the growing discourse about sexuality among Mormons online. Many major blogs addressed the issue head on, as in posts here and here.

After a few months, the Utah porn statistic became entrenched in conventional wisdom. Blogs would make reference to the statistic, and having drawn their conclusions, move on to provide explanations and accusations regarding the phenomenon, as represented here, here, here, here and here. The popular narrative of the shamed, porn-watching Mormon is well-represented by the views of Joanna Brooks, a well-known observer of Mormon religious practices and culture, who believes some of the religion’s teachings:

We all know LDS Church leaders have been emphasizing the dangers of pornography, especially to young men.  And yet, the statistics have shown that Utah has the highest rate of home online porn subscription.

Still, this seemingly contradictory pair of facts seems to suggest that there’s something compulsive going on with porn in the world of Mormonism.  Mormon communities are emphatic about chastity—because it is a commandment.  But Mormonism’s emphasis on chastity can impact the way Mormons feel about healthy sexuality, tinging it with shame, mystery, guilt, and unrealistic expectations. [link]

For five years the conversation on Mormonism and porn has been defined by this single data point, and psychological and sociological analyses of Mormon culture, like Brooks’, have rested upon it.

The paper’s accompanying fact that Idaho (25% Latter-day Saints) had the lowest rate of porn subscriptions per thousand broadband users in the US has only very rarely been cited. Also seldom reported is the fact that the data in the 2009 study was from an unnamed vendor, whose users may or may not be representative of the US population.

The New Data

Pornhub pageviews per capita

Annual pageviews per capita by state, Pornhub.com.

Last week, the third largest pornography website in the United States (Pornhub.com) released data on its annual pageviews per capita by state. A chart of pageviews by state is shown at right (a link to the analysis, which does not show explicit content, is here).

The chart as presented by Pornhub is limited in its applicability, because relevant demographic variables are left uncontrolled for, but the conclusion nevertheless appears favorable for Mormons. Utah’s pageviews per capita in 2013 were 40th in the US. Idaho and Wyoming, the other states with large Mormon populations, are even lower on the list, at 49th and 46th respectively.

In order to find a more meaningful interpretation of the data that would adjust for possible confounding variables, I went to the trouble of gathering the most recent demographic data I could find for each state, so I could perform a controlled regression. I included variables for GDP per capita, internet penetration per capita, male/female ratio, age distribution, race and each state’s marriage rate.

Using ordinary linear regression methods, I generated a difference between a state’s actual views per capita and the views that would be predicted based on demographic variables. In this analysis, Utah’s deviation from the views predicted by demographics was 45th in the United States, while Wyoming was 46th and Idaho came 50th.

In other words, when controlling for other variables, there is an even stronger suggestion than before that Mormon populations do not have abnormally high rates of porn use (at least as represented by Pornhub). We might even suggest that their rates of use are especially low.

I also decided to directly analyze the relationship between Mormonism and porn use (again, as measured by this particular metric). This is something the author of the 2009 study did not do. I included a variable for the percentage of a state’s population that is LDS, as measured by official LDS membership statistics and the most recent population projections based on census data.

The regression finds, roughly speaking, when controlling for the variables already mentioned, that a 10 percentage point increase in a state’s LDS population is associated with an approximate 16% decrease in the amount of porn consumption.

This result is highly significant, even at the 0.001 level. In fact, “percentage of Latter-day Saints in population” had a higher statistical significance than any other single variable I included in the regression (the next most significant variable was internet penetration). The proportion of overall explained variation in the regression is 66%, and a test for overall significance is highly conclusive, suggesting that the model as estimated is meaningful and significant.

Why do the results appear so different for these two sets of data? It’s almost impossible to know. The author of the 2009 study did not reveal the identity of the “top ten” porn vendor who gave him credit card data, and he admitted that there was no way to evaluate whether the users of that vendor were representative of the porn industry in general. His data, which was gathered from 2006 to 2008, also did not measure consumption, but rather paid subscriptions. A possible explanation of the discrepancy is that Utah’s porn use is skewed toward paid pornography.

In fairness, we cannot be sure that Pornhub.com users are representative of the industry overall. However, in this case we are aware of the identity of the provider, which provides both paid and unpaid content.

Statistics tell stories, and the famous “Utah porn statistic” has told far more stories than it is worth. If critics of Mormon teachings on porn and sexuality would like to continue promoting the idea that a conservative sexual culture has backfired on itself, then they will have to confront a less convenient set of data.

Here is another narrative, that perhaps time and further analysis will prove: Mormons view less porn than others, and those conservative sexual teachings are working.

EDIT: In response to a request, I obtained recent Gallup data on religiosity by state, and added these variables to my regression, in order to separate the effects of religiosity in general and religious engagement by Mormons. The same general results persist: a 10 percentage point increase in a state’s LDS population is associated with an approximate 17% decrease in porn pageviews. The p-value is once again very low, at 0.002. In deviations from projections including religiosity, Utah is ranked 38th, Idaho 50th, and Wyoming 46th. The differences from the earlier analysis are small and require no changes to the conclusions I suggested above.

Technical notes: I used Stata to perform the regressions mentioned. Data were collected from government sources wherever possible. The results were consistent even when using logarithmic variables for pageviews and GDP. I learned the relevant statistical methods as part of the completion of the econometric portion of my Honours economics degree. EDIT: Datafiles and my Stata do-file can be accessed here.

Is There Still a Place for Religion?

A depiction of Abraham, spiritual ancestor of the major monotheistic religions.

A depiction of Abraham, spiritual ancestor of the major monotheistic religions.

If there exists a popular portrait of religion in the West, it is not as bright as it once was. The spirituality that once illuminated the stage of history is now painted dimly, as if an obstacle in the path of progress and material prosperity.

This metaphorical portrait is given commentary by academic voices speaking the language of statistics. Sociologists juxtapose the low religiosity of countries in Northern Europe with their low rates of crime and poverty. Unbelievers in America remark that religious people are over-represented in US prisons—and under-represented among its scientists and thinkers. In the opinion of many researchers, the statistical landscape of religion is bleak.

As someone who is religious, I have sometimes looked away in disappointment from this scene, wishing there was some other pattern to be seen in it. While I have always found compelling spiritual and personal justifications for my religiosity, I have avoided debates about the social effects of faith, suspecting there was little statistical ground to stand on.

I have recently discovered this is not the case. The dramatic patterns of cause and effect, made obvious by a glance at the portrait that was brushed in broad strokes, give way to subtler narratives when the picture is crafted in finer lines by someone with keener eyes.

Two books I have read recently on religion and society have given nuance to my view. Both attempt to uncover the nature and role of religion in the United States. One is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, by Robert Putnam and David Campbell, both researchers at prominent American universities. The other is American Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists by Rodney Stark, who is one of the best known sociologists of religion.

Despite the ecclesiastical tone of each title, both books are mainly occupied by data and analysis. American Grace is particularly data-heavy, and it is appended by 123 pages of notes and appendices. With little theory or speculation, the authors share their analysis of the newest and best datasets on religion in America. American Blessings is also a statistical work, and it cites more than two hundred academic studies, all of which, according to Stark, use rigorous statistical methods.

Here are the claims of the authors. Campbell and Putnam find that religious Americans are more civically engaged, more generous, more neighborly, and more likely to be happy than irreligious Americans. Stark goes further, making and justifying claims that religion has the effect of lessening crime and delinquency, increasing educational success, improving mental health, lengthening human longevity, preventing suicide and promoting charitable giving and volunteering, even to secular causes. He proclaims (with satisfaction) that religious couples report more enjoyable sex lives than their unchurched peers, and that they are less likely to cheat, divorce, or mistreat their children.

Some of these findings are not surprising: most everyone has agreed for some time that religiosity is linked to generosity and civic engagement. The rest of the claims, however, seem to contradict popular (or at least academic) wisdom. I assumed, for example, before I began studying the question, that religiosity was linked to lower educational success and higher rates of crime and poverty.

What explains the gap between our assumptions and these statistics? According to Stark, most of the claims made about religion in the sociological literature are justified by simplistic analysis of poorly gathered data. Many papers use small samples of individuals, often drawn from non-random sources. More importantly, a great deal of the analysis performed does not control for relevant external variables.

This is a vital criticism. When searching for cause-and-effect relationships in social science data, it is irresponsible not to control for possible confounding effects to find independent relationships between variables. This is more difficult than correlating two sets of numbers: it involves regression analysis, a sophisticated technique with well-established statistical properties that can reveal hidden patterns in data.

It is true, for example, that the US states with the lowest incarceration rates have the lowest levels of religiosity. But when controlling for race, income and other social factors by way of regression methods, Stark finds that religion is actually negatively correlated with violent crime. This apparent discrepancy is resolved by the fact that black and Hispanic Americans represent a hugely disproportionate share of incarcerated Americans, but are also more religious than white Americans. While religious blacks and Hispanics are somewhat less violent than irreligious blacks and Hispanics (as can be confirmed by a closer look at the data), there are so many more minorities in prison than whites that it appears as if religious people commit more violent crime. Naive interpretation of data, even accurate data, can lead to conclusions opposite to reality.

Likewise, little can be inferred from the observation that the Western countries with the lowest religiosity are also those with the lowest crime rates. While there is very little statistical analysis of religion and crime in Europe, the existing literature finds a negative relationship between the two (the cited study is for crime in Sweden). Further, it is important not to be selective with statistics: while the US has a much higher murder rate than the Scandinavian countries, it also has far lower rates of assault and burglary, using 2008 data (according to Stark). It appears that crime has declined in the West over time despite growing irreligiosity, and probably not because of it.

It is also certainly possible that the heresy of our age underlies the slow decay of economic growth rates in the West, the rise of structural unemployment, or the stubbornness of child poverty rates (which are correlated with single parenthood).

The literature on the social effects of faithfulness is of course not settled. It may turn out that some of Stark’s conclusions are wrong, or lack adequate nuance. To that point, it seems to me after more study that the relationship between education and religion is more complicated than he let on: while church-attending students outperform the irreligious, it is also true that individual religiosity decreases as individuals gain higher education.

Nevertheless, a second look at the data is justified. To the extent that social scientists have neglected rigorous analysis in favor of more agreeable correlations, they must re-evaluate their assumptions, and paint their portrait of religious society in finer strokes, and from a wider palette. They will likely find that faith does not cast a shadow on modernity, but rather lights its way.