Religious conservatives should hope Hillary wins

Like Ted Cruz, millions of conservatives who have every reason to reject Donald Trump will vote for the Republican nominee in November. Cruz is just the most recent high-profile Republican to make the case that key differences between the two candidates—particularly on likely Supreme Court nominees—make Trump the better choice.

But Cruz’s and others’ reasoning is short-sighted. While it’s true that Trump’s known policy preferences are more conservative than Clinton’s, and while it’s likely enough that Trump will stick to these preferences, voting for him is still a bad bet for conservatives, and especially for religious conservatives.

Here are two reasons.

The first is that Trump as Republican president will come to represent conservatism. If we vote for him, then he’s in the club, whether we like it or not. And it’s unavoidable that the extent to which he represents conservatism is the extent to which he can corrupt it.

The second reason is that voting for a bad candidate only makes sense on a four-year time horizon.

In all likelihood, a vote for Trump is a vote for four Trump years and 4-8 years of the Democrat lucky enough to run against him in 2020. If Trump does become president, he will quickly become a historically unpopular one. Without popularity, and without the outsider’s appeal he has had this time around, he’ll be easily beaten by almost any Democrat not named Hillary Clinton in 2020. This includes any Democrat who chooses to run on a Sanders-esque platform of full-throated progressivism.

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Hillary Clinton delivers a policy speech at Georgetown University to a sparse audience. (M. Scott Mahaskey/Politico)

On the other hand, a vote for Hillary is effectively a vote for a 4-year term, followed by 4 to 8 years of a (non-Trump) Republican president. Already unpopular, Clinton would have a very difficult time asking Democrat-weary voters for a fourth consecutive Democratic term in the White House, making 2020 a golden opportunity for conservatives.

In other words, a Clinton win in 2016 probably means more total Republican years in the White House between now and 2029. Choosing a bad Democrat over a bad Republican this year allows the possibility of a successful conservative candidate in the next few elections, while the second all but rules it out.

As for the Supreme Court itself (admittedly this is where the Trump temptation has the greatest pull), these four years are not uniquely crucial when the two alternatives are considered.

The thought of Hillary Clinton nominating two or three justices stings. In all likelihood her one-term presidency would end with only three conservatives on the court: Thomas, Roberts and Alito. Her (probably Republican) successor would have limited opportunities to increase that number by replacing liberals. But it becomes clear, taking a twelve-year look, that there are no good options for conservatives now that a damaged candidate has won the nomination.

Trump’s Democratic successor would likely replace Thomas and Alito and possibly Roberts between 2021 and 2029, pushing the court again toward a 5-4, 6-3, or even 7-2 liberal majority (Trump would at very best get the count of conservatives on the court up to 6, as no liberal justice would voluntarily step down during his presidency). Unless we think a Trump presidency would usher in a Republican dynasty in the White House, there’s no good reason to think it would leave the court in better shape a decade from now than a Clinton presidency.

There are some reasonable objections here as to the urgency of the situation. Isn’t it true that we can’t afford four years of Hillary right now? Won’t she irreparably damage the country? Isn’t this election a historic turning point?

Probably not. Every election feels that way. I say this as a Christian who suspects that, in the coming decades, religious institutions will be severely marginalized and believers forced to make painful choices between their faith and major aspects of public life. We know what persecution looks like, and we’re not there yet. Having a conservative president will be almost certainly be more important in 2026 than in 2018.

Bottom line: strategic religious conservatives should not, by voting, sabotage their own movement—particularly when the option remains to sabotage the other side. Let them have four years of Hillary. Don’t let us be stuck with Trump.

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

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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.

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

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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.

Sacredness and Mockery

A parody of the Christian symbol of the fish.

A parody of the Christian symbol of the fish.

As someone who inhabits the cultural world of the college-aged, I am seldom caught off guard by irreverence. Recently, however, I was surprised by a sticker I noticed on an acquaintance’s car. It was the familiar Christian symbol of the fish, but the icon was superimposed with the word “SATAN”.

My surprise came from the incongruity of the situation. While the parody was almost certainly an expression of humor (as opposed to hostility), this person was too well-mannered, I thought, to take so lightly the religious beliefs of others. I was sure she would not have intentionally risked making an offense. The likeliest explanation for her unexpected disrespect is probably not malice or even mischief, but rather a lack of understanding of what religious symbols can mean to others; an inadequate sense of the sacred (the transcendently valuable).

My generation lives at the intersection of fascinating civilizational movements, including ebbing religiosity, an impersonal, internet-driven mass media, and a flourishing of individualist thinking, to name a few. Each of these shifts in culture has had its way of shrinking the class of symbols our society collectively holds sacred, and each has deadened our sensitivity to the symbols that remain, religious or otherwise.

This phenomenon is not entirely new, as we can see by observing the ebbs and flows of history. However, while religious ridicule in history was most often intentional and polemic, the modern mocker is surprisingly simplistic, and shockingly casual. We see this in its essence on the internet: the medium of choice for the post-adolescent blasphemer is the “meme”, where a simple image is captioned with a one or two-line joke. An image of Mary, for example, with a caption suggesting that Christianity is the result of her lying about an affair. An absurd, belittling depiction of Jesus. An image of someone praying, with sarcastic annotation about the uselessness of prayer. Our societal misfortune is not just that irreverence is pervasive, but that it comes from ignorance. More and more young people do not see why they should respect the sacred symbols that are their cultural heritage. Or even, perhaps, any symbol that others revere, such as the red poppy worn by Canadians in November.

As each generation vulgarizes one formerly sacred cultural practice or object, they leave one fewer for the next generation. These symbols do not easily reappear, because children seldom sanctify what their parents treated as common. Of course, culture has perhaps always evolved in this way. The disappearance of sacred symbols need not necessarily mean anything dire. But if the present slow death of sanctity really is unprecedented, then we would do well to consider the dangers.

Sacredness need not be its own justification; scientists are beginning to suspect that it performs an important anthropological role. Jonathan Haidt, a secular moral psychologist, believes that “we evolved to see sacredness all around us and to join with others into teams that circle around sacred objects, people and ideas.” For a period after the attacks of 9/11, for example, Americans felt more united than they had perhaps felt in years; patriotism swelled and flags flew on more houses than had flown them for decades. The idea that America and its security were sacred seemed to renew the mutual goodwill and unity of Americans. Until recently in the West, there was a common reverence for the Judeo-Christian tradition. Leaving aside commentary on the value of Christianity (or Judaism) itself, it is hard to dispute that this common worship endowed our civilization with a set of symbols that defined our collective identity—in fact, modern definitions of “civilization” often rest on the idea of a common set of symbols.

A second justification for sacredness is revealed by considering what it is that we sanctify. Many of us consider children to be sacred. We place no earthly price on their protection. We value them almost infinitely. Marriage and religion were once seen this way, and many of us continue to see them this way. What these sacred things have in common—children, marriage, religion—is that they are vulnerable, costly, and have an extraordinary practical value that is invisible at first glance. We have collectively learned, over the millennia, to treat them as having transcendent value so that we never make the mistake of losing them, even though their cost is more apparent than their value. The norms and injunctions that surround sacred things serve to protect these things—the vulnerable, costly and valuable. We have begun to feel the effects of losing these norms—the Brookings Institution recently estimated that the US poverty rate would be 25% lower if marriage rates were what they were in the 1960s. Europe is now bearing the costs of plummeting birth rates, as the workforce stops growing while retiree numbers swell.

My last fear about the withering of sacredness in our society is one I have alluded to: that it will make us unsympathetic and callous toward minority groups with sacred beliefs, even if we are normally tolerant and friendly. My secular acquaintance did not seem to take much thought that her sticker might have hurt someone else. It is not that today’s twenty-somethings hold nothing sacred; most would place a near-infinite value on their own lives, the lives of their loved ones, or of their pets. But in these cases there is no conscious acknowledgement of sacredness in itself: the word would be written off as belonging to religion. If my generation, more than its parents, feels at liberty to mock Christianity, what will be the next generation’s attitude toward Islam or Hinduism? Can sympathy toward sacredness persist among those who have never believed in it?

A defense of sacredness is not necessarily a justification of any sacred object in particular, and it is left to our own discretion to worship what we will. But in our pluralistic society it seems essential at least to take seriously that which is holy to our friends and neighbors. If instead we slouch into casual mockery and lose our sense of the sacred, we will have carelessly squandered our civilizational inheritance, trampling as the swine the pearls that were cast our way.

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.