A lot of people are talking about the recent NYTs story on members leaving the church. I found it a pretty poor story. Not because I don’t think there isn’t a story there. Just that this seemed extremely superficial — largely taking a single anecdote and drawing a pattern from it. Clearly there are people leaving the Church. However as I noted a couple of years ago in my retention series here there seems to be a broader social trend. I’m extremely skeptical that the internet contributes much to it. David Knowlton wrote a blog post yesterday that seems to agree.
I am skeptical of the internet as the primary cause of this change. From Tahrir Square to this loss of faith the internet is blamed for all kinds of social movement and breakdowns in authority. While it undoubtedly plays a role, as scholar after scholar points out, it is more hyped that an adequate cause.
I think this is quite right. I think John Dehlin, who features prominently in the NYT story, has successfully reframed the issue for most intellectual Mormons. However while he certainly has been good about finding anecdotes about how people lose their faith I’m far from convinced they are representative of the aggregate.
In any case I think you have to compare Mormon retention with the retention in other groups. While admittedly moving from say an non-denominational Church to a Lutheran Church isn’t quite the same as moving from LDS faith to say being a Baptist, there are some general comparisons. First according to the ARIS survey the fastest growing group in America are those with no faith. So all faiths are losing adherents. According to the book American Grace Mormons retention rate is 60%. (See this post of mine for more data) That’s vastly better than most other categories even though particular subcategories of conservative Protestantism like pentacostals may be growing slightly faster than Mormons.
If this is all true, what we’re seeing is much more a general move towards secularism which is part of broader American social phenomena.1
Is this about the Internet? Certainly if there was an Internet effect it’d be a change 15 years ago and not today. (So the NYT is perhaps a decade or so behind on the story) However when you look at the data broadly the real changes start in the early 90′s. You then have a slight delay before it hits Evangelicals and then a little while longer and it hits Mormons. I’m not sure what the ultimate cause is.2
- Once again read that series on retention I wrote for more data. Once you see all the studies you realize a lot of the recent hyperbole is a bit misplaces. Which isn’t to ignore the real social changes going on in the country. ↩
- Although I give a few theories in those posts. My best theory is that it’s tied to the end of the cold war with the slight retrenchment of religious belief during the naughts due to effects of 9/11. ↩