Seven Common Social Science Misconceptions that Liberal Mormons Like to Believe

1. Utah Mormons are porn-using hypocrites

I’ve addressed this one in a previous SquareTwo article. [1] However, since then the largest adult-services website in the US has released their state-level rankings, and for free pornography (which is much less selective than the paid pornography examined in the often-cited study that puts Utah at the top), Utah is ranked 40th among the US states. [2]

2. Mormon women are leaving the Church at higher rates than men due to gender issues in the Church

Mormon men leave the Church at a much, much higher rate than women. Ironically, in the same issue where its journalists discussed women leaving the Church over gender issues, the New York Times paradoxically pointed out that the sex ratios in the Mormon marriage market are incredibly low (i.e. there is a significant surplus of women). [3]

This is empirically confirmed by probably the largest study of self-identified Mormons so far [4] that clearly demonstrates that men have a much higher rate of apostasy. Furthermore, a trend analysis shows men are increasingly more likely to leave the Church compared to women over time. While some women are undoubtedly leaving the Church over gender issues, perhaps the phenomenon of men disproportionately leaving the Church merits as much attention.

3. “The Church is going through the greatest period of apostasy since Kirtland”

This one was started by a comment by Elder Marlin K. Jensen in a class at Utah State in 2011. Since Church-level membership records weren’t kept in the early days of the Church, it’s difficult to come up with some sort of comparative apostasy rate that one can systematically compare across years, so this statement was more the result of Elder Jensen going off the fly than of some sort of systematic historical analysis. I am especially dubious that this is true if the post-martyrdom succession crisis is included, when a significant portion of the Church chose not to follow Brigham Young.  

Official church numbers aren’t always accurate simply because people usually don’t bother to take their names off the Church’s rolls when they leave it, but it seems to difficult to believe that there’s some sort of covert mass apostasy going on while the Church continues to add new congregations to its membership rolls. [5] Additionally, the number of self-identified Mormons in the US has remained even with population growth from 1990 to 2008. [6] So while, yes, there may be a lot of apostasy going on, the idea that the Church is numerically buckling just doesn’t appear to be true.

Furthermore, talk of apostasy is important to place in the context of the general secularizing trend that the US is experiencing across all religions. Usually when people assert an increased level of Mormon apostasy, they offer a quick ad hoc explanation (women and the priesthood, Proposition 8, availability of information on the Internet, etc.), suggesting that the Church had better reform or else. I address more about this in item 7, but suffice it to say that the United States is becoming less religious in general, so nearly all religions appear to be losing active adherents. The fact that the LDS can maintain their numbers in the face of this general secularizing trend demonstrates some ability to “swim upstream,” as it were, and unless the net LDS apostasy rate is higher than the background US secularization rate, there isn’t much ground to argue that the apostasy is due to something particular to Mormonism.

4. Psychological research has shown that masturbation is healthy for your sexuality

This one is occasionally trumpeted by some corners of the Mormon blogosphere. For being such widespread conventional wisdom (even among some professionals) this idea enjoys surprisingly little empirical support. The fact is that there’s a growing body of research literature that associated masturbation with poor measures of sexual health. Miguel Costa published a concise review of the empirical literature on this topic in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, one of the top sexuality journals in the US. [7]

5. A large portion of the homeless in Utah are gay Mormons who have been expelled from their families (optional addition: the gay Mormon suicide rate is incredibly high)

I always hear the homeless statistic but have yet to be directed towards the actual study that derives this number so that as a professional sociologist I can judge the methodology for myself. Any census of transient homeless people is going to be naturally difficult and rely on a lot of empirical assumptions. I’m ready to be proven wrong if anybody knows where this number comes from.

In regards to the gay suicide rate; once again, I always hear this one but nobody seems to be able to direct me towards what study actually quantified this. Suicide rates are notoriously difficult to accurately derive due to the fact that most suicide victims don’t leave notes, so it becomes difficult to know what was an accident and what was a suicide. Coming up with an accurate estimate of who was gay, especially when they may not be out of the closet yet, is also problematic; consequently, the intersection of these two difficult-to-quantify figures makes me skeptical that such a figure it grounded in empirical substance. I haven't carefully followed up on all the citations used here, but this blogpost seems to flesh out a lot of the issues really well. Of course, any gay Mormon suicide rate above zero is too high, and I applaud efforts to reduce the gay suicide rate in general and in Mormondom in particular, but any efforts to do so should be based on real figures and not statistical innuendo.

6. The Church needs to get with the times or risk dying off

The churches that try to be on what they see as the frontier of social sentiment are precisely that ones with the lowest growth rates. It is true that some of this is attributable to the fact that people in liberal churches have fewer children [8], but the fact remains that conversion from conservative to liberal churches is quite rare, more liberals switch to conservative churches than vice-versa, and that liberal churches have higher apostasy rates into irreligiosity. [9] People can make a more philosophical case for why the Church needs to swing to the left, but what they cannot do is imply that to do otherwise will be problematic for the Church in the future in terms of membership numbers--that position lacks any empirical support.

7. Mormons are disproportionately depressed

This conclusion appeals to the same logical fallacies as the pornography issue I discussed earlier. If everything Utah equals everything Mormon, then people who cite this statistic need to also deal with the fact that Utah usually is near the top of Gallup’s emotional well-being index nearly every year, and that the cities within Utah noted for highest antidepressant use are reportedly Roy and Hooper, while the lowest is Mormon-heavy Provo [10], and that other Mormon-heavy states in the Mormon belt such as Idaho and Arizona, do not show relatively high rates of antidepressants. This is undoubtedly a complicated issue but simple "Utah characteristics equals Mormon-caused" equivalences do not help matters.

* * *

Seven Social Science Misconceptions that Conservative Mormons Like to Believe

1. The divorce rate is increasing

The divorce rate is decreasing. If one compared the divorce rate now to the divorce rate in the 1950s, then yes, it is higher. However, divorce has been decreasing since about 1980-1981--a 30+ year period. Part of this trend is the fact that the marriage rate is lower than it once was, with many more couples simply living together instead of marrying.

2. No-fault divorce laws are bad

This position is curious since Mormons were pioneers in no-fault divorce. In the early Utah era (popular Eastern misconceptions about brainwashed, abused polygamous wives notwithstanding), women were liberally granted divorces with hardly any questions asked. They could enter a marriage whenever they wanted (due to polygamy), and they could leave whenever they wanted. To give some sense of how revolutionary this was, California women (and men) didn’t have the same right until 1970.

No-fault divorce helps empower abused women, especially those with comparatively fewer resources to buy legal assistance compared to men. By granting women the ability to gain a simple and quick divorce, it also grants them more leverage in a marital relationship which otherwise may be characterized by inequality. This isn’t just theory: no-fault divorce in U.S. states have been show to be associated with decreased female suicide, decreased domestic violence, and decrease in females murdered by their partners. [11] Additionally, it is not even clear that the central objection to no-fault divorce laws--that it would lead to an increase in long-term divorce rates--is even true. [12] As noted above, divorce rates are falling in a context of near-universal no-fault divorce availability in the United States.

3. The world is becoming much more wicked

First all, “the world” is big and complicated, and has thousands of different cultures going various directions with their own behavior norms and beliefs. A popular sitcom showing more sexually explicit scenes only says something about the culture that produced it and is consuming it: it doesn’t say anything about the billions of people in the world who can’t watch it or don’t have access to it. Taking our one society's faults as representative of the “world” is narrow minded.  When people make statements about the state of the world’s wickedness, they’re often taking their cues from information that reflects a very narrow piece of the total human pie and comparing it to a very small slice of history, and sometimes to a mythologized golden era that never really existed.

In terms of the US, some indicators are getting better and some are not. Despite large increases in our standard of living, happiness levels in the United States have remained relatively stagnant, and economic inequality and extramarital sex have increased. However, child abuse is taken much more seriously by institutions than it was in the past, as is rape (consider that marital rape wasn’t even considered a crime in the U.S. until the 1970s). There is a general sentiment that US citizens are more socially isolated than we were in the past, but even this is part of an ongoing debate. [13]

If Mormon religious orthodoxy is considered, some of us are old enough to have umpteenth-generation Mormon grandparents who drank coffee. Church practice has become more strict in some spheres, less strict in other, so how would we judge these things even among our own faith community?

Stretching our discouragement to include all human history before today (“we are living in the wickedest times ever”) simply demonstrates an ignorance of history. During the Thirty Years' War, Swedish mercenaries would pour boiling fecal matter down the throats of emaciated peasants to encourage them to reveal the whereabouts of the few possessions they were relying on to keep their families from starving. I think that the Swedes have become a little nicer since then, don't you? Of course, brutal things of this sort (think ISIS beheadings and crucifixions) still happen today, but the very fact that we globally react with repugnance is a fairly new phenomenon. Brutal torture and death was very common fare everywhere in the world until recently. The kind of brutality hinted at in the Book of Revelation and elsewhere was much more characteristic of the past than it is of the present.

4. The End is near

People have been saying that the end is near because of (insert relatively local or temporary occurrence) since Jesus mentioned the end times. There’s a very, very long history of these kinds of statements. No matter what era it is, there are always people saying that the end is near. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it isn’t near, but realizing how common this sentiment is forces one to be a little more humble about our ability to draw conclusions and contextualize whatever is currently occurring in the long sweep of human history and accurately connect vague dots laid down in scripture. While we should be striving to be temporally secure and prepared for emergencies, many in the LDS community, especially in the Mountain West, appear to drastically overestimate the probability of the kind of post-apocalyptic, end-of-days situation (that our food storage would not save us from).

5. All humans are descended from a couple that lived within written history

While I think most Mormons don’t accept the literal "earth is 6000 years old" timeframe, anecdotally it seems that many LDS still have a vague perception that at some point in the relatively recent past all humans were descended from two people who (evolved here/were placed here/were made here), that they had writing and kept records, and that all races are descended from this original family that lived about 6,000 years ago or so. 

In fact, the earliest common ancestor to all humans lived much earlier (about 100,000-200,000 years ago). While there is some disagreement, the confidence intervals are all safely outside of historical time (i.e. when records started to be kept). Many don’t buy this timeframe because they don’t want to hang their hat on one or two scientific methods such as carbon dating that they don’t trust fully. However, the dating of early human history relies not just on one or two scientific methods, but a wide range of approaches. Fossil evidence, different forms of biological radiometric dating, genetic similarities between species, rates of genetic mutation, and physiological similarities between us and other primates, all converge on the same time frame, suggesting that, if God did indeed create us within the 6000 year historical time, he would have had to purposefully twiddle with multiple lines of evidence in order to purposefully trick us. Or, in the words of Henry Eyring (President Eyring’s father), “it would take a very fancy shovel to put the earth together in such a organized fashion so that the fossils and ages of rocks are arranged in such an orderly manner with the oldest on the bottom and the youngest on top.”
These estimated timeframes are not reliant on a single method that could be proven wrong tomorrow, but on literally dozens of different methods that all converge at approximately the same time, with the evidence becoming strong enough that it’s approaching earth-goes-around-the-sun level surety.

There are dozens of different ways this reality can be reconciled with scripture, I don’t particularly care which one somebody chooses, but as seekers after truth, Mormons should not believe in something that is demonstrably false.

6. The United States of America is awesome

Sometimes we are, sometimes we’re not. The Book of Mormon seems to grant some special status to the land where the Nephites/Lamanites lived, but we have no idea where in the Western Hemipshere that was, so we shouldn’t assume that perfectly matches onto the political boundaries of the United States of America in the year 2015. The statements are also very conditional (as most covenants with God are), probably similar to the type that all of God’s people have had at one point or another. Aspects of U.S. institutions are divinely inspired, but probably in the same way that God has inspired most of what’s good in the world, these pronouncements don’t grant super-nation status on us. And don't forget that the US constitution pronounced slaves to be 3/5ths of a human being. The US has been the source of much good and much evil in the world. Just one example: if the United States lost the revolutionary war the southern slaves would have been freed 30 years earlier when the United Kingdom banned it. Something to think about.

7. Europe is dying off due to low fertility

This one is sort of true, but one has to be more clear about which countries one is talking about. It is true that some European countries have very low fertility that critically threatens their ability to support their aging population. However, others (Iceland, Ireland, France), are doing okay, and are in no danger of “disappearing” anytime soon.

An Extra Credit Myth that Has Both Liberal and Conservative Variants Among Mormons
Those of us who have children and use government services such as WIC often hear a common complaint that we are freeriders, taking from the system without putting in. Also, some people may even choose to have fewer children than they would otherwise specifically because they feel a sense of obligation in being able to provide for their own without government assistance. 

However, those who have children are spending money to raise the next generation of taxpayers that will pay into the social security system that will support their parents’ generation in their old-age. Seen in that way, society actually owes these parents financially. While this makes sense in theory, how much they contribute to society has actually been quantified: 

"This is certainly true of childbearing, where children impose costs for health care and education on society, but also provide benefits as taxpayers who help support the elderly and spread the costs of public goods (Lee, 1990; Lee and Miller, 1990). Population aging raises these externalities by increasing the need for taxes to help support the elderly. In earlier work, Lee and Miller (1997) evaluated these externalities as shown in Table 2. They calculated that a child born to parents who have a high school education had a net fiscal present value of $171,000 in 1996. . . This large positive fiscal externality reflects in large part the fact that the family does not benefit directly from old-age support when it has a child, although society does. It is possible, although perhaps not likely, that this externality is partly responsible for the low fertility observed throughout industrialized nations today." (Lee, Ronald D. "Demographic change, welfare, and intergenerational transfers: a global overview." In Ages, Generations and the Social Contract, pp. 17-43. Springer Netherlands, 2007.)

In the table below this statement in the text of the article, the author breaks these figures down further according to education. For parents who have more than a high school degree, the financial worth of their child to the system is approximately $245,000 (that's after deducting education and other standard public expenses). There's more discussion that follows in the article, but the point is that unless my son ends up consuming more than $245,000 worth of WIC milk and cheese, his existence contributes more to the public balance sheet than it takes away, and therefore it doesn’t make sense to not have children in order to avoid accepting government help. (P.S,. Immigrants have a similar effect ($80,000 worth),which is something else to consider when they are maligned for soaking the system.)


In conclusion, we are often frustrated within our LDS faith community when trying to speak across the liberal-conservative divide. Part of that frustration may well stem from clinging to myths that prevent us from moving that dialogue forward. If truth-seeking is indeed a foundation to love, as scripture makes plain (D&C 88:40), believing things that are not true will continue to be an impediment to bringing about the unity that characterizes a Zion society. To rephrase the Lamanite king's heart-felt expression, are we prepared to "give away all our myths to know thee"? (Alma 22:18)

Addendum (April 2016): In my response to one of the comments of my "Seven Myths" article, I stated that

Since, at the end of the day, the Fall is the theologically important part to retain, I think any scenario that retains the Fall can be considered orthodox even if it doesn't include literal, exclusive genetic descent.

I suppose they could have been the primal biological progenitors, but then knowledge of them would have to come through revelation, and not through written records being passed down, since this would have happened long before any literate civilization appeared on the scene.

However, I didn't consider the possibility that knowledge of the Fall was transmitted orally. I recently read an Oxford University Press book by a Harvard linguist that just came out (The Origins of the World's Mythologies) that presents intriguing evidence (although I don't pretend to be educated enough in this area to judge the evidence for myself...but from my perspective it seemed intriguing), that common religious motifs found around the world (for example, the fall, the flood, multiple generations of Gods, and other themes we Mormons can relate to) have their genesis in an original system of religious beliefs stemming from our earliest, common ancestors in Africa. Specifically, using the same methods employed by comparative linguistics, the author uses several hundred pages to derive a take away sentence that he believes more or less conveys the religious beliefs held by the group of which "Mitochondrial Eve," the mother from whom all modern humans are descended, believed:

"The high God, first living on a preexisting earth, moves up to heaven and sends his child down to create humans, who cause some mischief and are therefore punished by a flood and/or death" (Page 372).



[1] http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCranneyUtahPorn.html. [Back to manuscript]

[2] http://virtuoussociety.com/2014/04/16/rethinking-mormons-and-porn-utah-40th-in-us-in-new-porn-data/ . [Back to manuscript]

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/02/us/a-growing-role-for-mormon-women.html?_r=0 . [Back to manuscript]

[4] Cragun, Ryan, and Rick Philips. "Mormons in the United States 1990-2008: Socio-demographic Trends and Regional Differences." (2008). http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/12/Mormons2008.pdf . [Back to manuscript]

[5] LDS Church Growth. http://ldschurchgrowth.blogspot.com/ . [Back to manuscript]

[6] Cragun, Ryan, and Rick Philips. "Mormons in the United States 1990-2008: Socio-demographic Trends and Regional Differences." (2008). http://commons.trincoll.edu/aris/files/2011/12/Mormons2008.pdf . [Back to manuscript]

[7] Costa, Rui Miguel. "Masturbation is related to psychopathology and prostate dysfunction: Comment on Quinsey (2012)." Archives of sexual behavior (2012): 1-2. [Back to manuscript]

[8] Hout, Michael, Andrew Greeley, and Melissa J. Wilde. "The Demographic Imperative in Religious Change in the United States1." American Journal of Sociology 107, no. 2 (2001): 468-500. [Back to manuscript]

[9] Skirbekk, Vegard, Eric Kaufmann, and Anne Goujon. "Secularism, fundamentalism, or Catholicism? The religious composition of the United States to 2043." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 49, no. 2 (2010): 293-310. [Back to manuscript]

[10] http://www.standard.net/topics/drugs/2010/09/15/hooper-and-roy-antidepressant-use-highest-state . [Back to manuscript]

[11] Stevenson, Betsey, and Justin Wolfers. "Bargaining in the shadow of the law: Divorce laws and family distress." The Quarterly Journal of Economics (2006): 267-288. [Back to manuscript]

[12] Wolfers, Justin. Did unilateral divorce laws raise divorce rates? A reconciliation and new results. No. w10014. National Bureau of Economic Research, 2003. [Back to manuscript]

[13] Parigi, Paolo, and Warner Henson II. "Social Isolation in America." Annual Review of Sociology 0 (2014). [Back to manuscript]

Full Citation for this Article: Cranney, Stephen (2015) "Seven Social Science Myths Liberal Mormons Like to Believe; Seven Social Science Myths that Conservative Mormons Like to Believe," SquareTwo, Vol. 8 No. 1 (Spring 2015), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleCranneyMyths.html, accessed <give access date>.

Would you like to comment on this article? Thoughtful, faithful comments of at least 200 words are welcome. Please submit to SquareTwo.

COMMENTS: 12 Comments

I. Collin R. Simonsen

Mr. Cranney,

Thank you for the fascinating and informative article on myths that LDS believe.

I am curious to learn more about no-fault divorce. I thought that it was kind of vague that you say that they are not bad. Seems like no-fault divorce policies are likely to have a large variety of good and bad affects. It may be that the sum total of affects is bad, notwithstanding the numerous good results.

I’m also curious about the “end is near” section. What you say makes sense and I’ve had to check myself and realize that other times have seemed more like “the end times” than now. For example, World War II probably seemed like the last days for my grandparents.

But then, how are we to interpret the Signs of the Times? How do we know if it is the last days?

Thanks again for the great article!

Collin Simonsen

Collin R. Simonsen
Fetzer Simonsen Booth & Jenkins, PC
50 W. Broadway, Ste 1200
Salt Lake City, UT 84101


II. Stephen Cranney responds to Collin R. Simonsen

Thanks so much for your response! I was trying to keep the piece short and concise, so I suppose it was inevitable that I was going to oversimplify socially complicated phenomenon like no-fault divorce. Yes, there may be bad implications, but I think what I was trying to do was, on a very basic level, counteract the basic idea that it's all bad. There may be evidence that it has deleterious effects, but I'm not aware of any (that being said, I haven't looked very hard so it might be there); from the literature I've read retaining the legal option to opt out of a marriage at will has positive side-effects, so I thought it might be useful to raise awareness that it might be a good thing. Although it may be plausible that making divorce easier weakens marriage as an institution, I guess it's a question of whether it's in the best interest to save the marriages that are only continuing due to institutional barriers against divorce.

As far as the "end of days" section, I get the sense that when the time does come God will communicate it to us the way he always does--through the still small voice--not because we've broken some Bible code, have correctly interpreted Revelations, or have correctly added up all of the years in the Bible until the seven thousand years have past (believe me, lots of religious groups have tried! Incidentally, I just finished a fascinating book on the subject: http://www.amazon.com/Expecting-Armageddon-Essential-Readings-Prophecy/dp/041592331X). That's not to say that the end isn't "near" in God's timescale--but if the earth is 4.5 billion years old near for him isn't near for us. It can be "at the door" like it says in D&C but relatively far off from our vantage point. Anyway, just some thoughts. Glad you enjoyed the article.




III. Brad Zwahlen

I have never read any of your work previously but I will from now on. Your article on 7 myths of liberal and conservative Mormons was fantastic and it made me stop and think. I realized that I believed many of the myths on both sides of the spectrum. Maybe that means I am not a liberal or conservative Mormon ( which is where I hope I am). I am surprised ( and comforted) by the data showing Utah residents are not the highest porn viewers in the country although you would not know it from recent talks in general conference. Also, I am happily surprised at the lack of data supporting the supposed epidemic of gay teen suicides. I would not know that from recent talks in my stake conference ( I live in the Oakland, Ca stake). I wonder if both sides are using these myths against us. Both groups can argue that even if the underlying data is not proven, the arguments can lead us o better behavior. While I agree that porn is bad and one suicide is too many, I would prefer to know the truth rather than making assumptions using anecdotal data. Can you clarify a few things for me? The depression data seems to be all over the place. According to your article, Utah is the happiest state yet the use of SSRI is the highest in the nation. Are both of those true? Are Utahns happier because of the antidepressants or are we over treating depression there? Any thoughts?

I was shocked to find that divorce is declining. Is that also true within the membership of the church? What about among those married I the temple?

I would love to hear your thoughts about how to reconcile Adam and Eve with scientific data. This has always been tough for me. I would love your ideas and how you came up with them.

Finally, I enjoyed the argument for child welfare. I had never though of it that way. I have always been a "pay for your kids" believer (and anti-illegal immigrates getting welfare) as a general rule. Although your arguments have not changed my mind, it at least made me think. My argument is that your child will benefit society just as much if you pay for him up front. He will not "pay society back" any more because of the upfront help unless we bill him the difference when he is an adult. Does that mean he is helping society less because the government paid his food bill through WIC while growing up? I would say an emphatic NO!! However, from a societal standpoint, he will start out in the hole due to the WIC. Anyway, thank you for the article. I would love your thoughts.


IV. Stephen Cranney responds to Brad Zwahlen

Thanks for the comments! Yes, discussing myths that might have unintended good consequences is tricky, because you don't want to come off as trying to subtly insinuate that the extreme opposite is true (there aren't any gay suicides and all is well in Zion on the pornography front).

In regards to your specific question: we often tend to think that mental health is a single-dimensional concept, when it's really quite complicated and multifaceted. You can have relatively good mental health in some dimensions, and relatively poor mental health in other dimensions (although the good and bad dimensions do tend to clump together). Consequently, while we think that all of these measurements are approximately measuring the same thing, they are in fact often measuring distinct concepts, which is why we can have seemingly paradoxical results when we don't slow down and really ask what exactly we are measuring. The devil is often in the details of the measurements used.

As far as the Utah specifically goes, your guess is probably as good as mine. I've heard different speculations: maybe it's a cultural thing about how Utahns handle depression (by prescribing SSRIs) rather than an indicator of depression per se? The real way to compare the depression level of Utah to other states would be to conduct a random survey of the population of different states using a validated scale for doing so and compared to other states. SSRI prescription levels is at best a very rough approximation at best, and there are a number of different ways that it can fail to measure underlying level of depression in a population.

As far as divorce--again, hard to say. Divorce is infamously difficult to estimate since it's a lifelong measure. To be able to say "what proportion of marriages end in divorce," you need to follow through the marriages all the way to the end (i.e. death), so by the time we can have an accurate percentage for a cohort, they'r so old that most people don't care about their divorce rate (the divorce rates of our grandparents aren't as interesting as the divorce rates of our peers). All of this makes estimating divorce rates very tricky business. I'm not privy to the data on temple marriages, but it seems like I've heard through the grapevine that the Church's estimate is that temple-sealed marriages are less prone to divorce, but I've also heard that that's largely because temple marriages tend to occur among the more stable relationships in the first place, so it's hard to know. I certainly don't have any information on time trends in divorce within the Church.

As for Adam and Eve, there are a couple of different possibilities: e.g. Adam and Eve weren't the first physiological species of homo sapiens sapiens, but they were major figures that God chose at some point in human development that were given a choice to exercise their agency, after which we "became as the Gods" and had civilization with all its attendant problems, advantages, and expectations. Before then we may have been physiologically identical to our forebears, but I'm sympathetic to the view that Adam and Eve were figures at the beginning of civilization, and not at the beginning of our biological existence as a species.

Also, there's the possibility that the Garden of Eden was a place in the presence of God, and not some special cordoned off area of Earth. When Adam and Eve again exercised their agency in some way to become as the Gods they were placed on the fallen earth. Again, not that they were the biological parents of all humankind, but because of what they did man became a species of potential Gods, again with its attendant expectations and privileges. Since, at the end of the day, the Fall is the theologically important part to retain, I think any scenario that retains the Fall can be considered orthodox even if it doesn't include literal, exclusive genetic descent.

I suppose they could have been the primal biological progenitors, but then knowledge of them would have to come through revelation, and not through written records being passed down, since this would have happened long before any literate civilization appeared on the scene. They could have been the first "humans," but again since evolution is a relatively gradual continuum, it's hard to say at exactly what point in the developmental line the next child coming out of the womb was a human when the parent wasn't. It's similar to considering a bald man who is clearly bald, and a man with a full head of hair who is clearly not, but if we removed on hair at a time from the hairy man it would be hard to know at what precise number of hairs the man became "bald," so it is with human evolution. It's hard to know at what point the important hair was removed (figuratively speaking), and God said, okay, now you are in my image. I don't think anybody really knows at what point that happened.

Finally, a lot of people have already pointed out that "Adam" in Hebrew can also mean mankind, and Eve means source of life, so it's also possible that there are multiple layers of symbolic meaning in the Genesis account, discussing the creation, fall, and atonement of humankind in symbolic terms. A lot of early Christian and Jewish thinkers take this view, and I think the temple ceremonies definitely show this kind of interpretation to be legitimate.Anyway, it's all really speculative, but there are a lot of different ways to go with this.

Finally, with the welfare argument. It is true that the child will benefit society the same whether I pay for him/her up front or not. However, the argument was more directed towards people who decide to not have the child so that they aren't burdening the social balance sheet, because if the impoverished parents have two options, A) have the child and accept government help, or B) don't have the child and therefore don't accept government help for that child, then it would actually contribute more money to the government to have the child with government help instead of not having the child. So, in the end I'm encouraging people to not let the libertarian concern get in the way of their having children, but of course once they have the child it would contribute more to the government to pay for the child one's self than to accept government help, but it still stands that it makes more financial sense (for the governemnt) for you to have that child with government help than to not have that child due to not wanting to take government help, because that child will pay into the future social security system (in a sense, their "bill" as you put it that they all get from living in US society). On the same note, in the long run it's worth it to "pay" immigrants to come here with government benefits because they and their children will contribute to the social security base of the older generation.

Anyway, glad you lacked the article! I hope my answers clarified some things.



V. Matt Mosman

While I was pleased to note that your commentary on the question of homelessness and suicide rates of gay Mormon teens highlights that you just don't know where the research came from, still it seems weird to refer to something as a myth, and then assert that the reason it is a myth is because you haven't personally seen the research. It feels to me like a great many things would be myths under that definition. North Dakota would be a myth to me, for example.

The blog post to which you link (and suggest that it "seems to flesh out the issues really well") offers zero data as well, but for reasons I cannot divine, that's okay in this context. That post refers to another blog post, and at least this one tries to get somewhere with data. But then it bases its conclusions on the inability of its author to find appropriate data through government and health data, as though that would do the trick. Then when after the fact he is pointed to an actual study conducted rather precisely on point by Dr. Caitlin Ryan at SFSU, he dismisses its findings by referring to the study as "small" and "non-representative" without suggesting why it is either. One might consider talking to Dr. Ryan or to another researcher in the field before writing blog posts suggesting their research either doesn't exist or doesn't matter.

In any case: I'd probably resist calling something a myth without actually demonstrating that it's, you know, mythical. While I appreciate that you took pains to point out that "any gay Mormon suicide rate above zero is too high" (a point which could hardly be emphasized enough), nevertheless it would be very, very harmful to lead people to believe that this particular issue is a myth only to discover that all along there was research to support the claim in the first place.



VI. Stephen Cranney responds to Matt Mosman

Hi Matt, thanks for your response.

You're exactly right that demonstrating that the basis of a belief isn't valid isn't the same as demonstrating that the belief is itself false. To do the latter, the onus of justification is on me; in other words, I would have to use data to establish that there is a null relationship. So I can't affirmatively say that it is a myth; to be more precise I'm saying that the idea that data has demonstrated the gay-Mormon-homeless/suicide belief is true is a myth, not that the gay-Mormon-homeless/suicide belief is itself untrue. People can happen to believe right things even though their justification for doing so is faulty.

Anyway, in regards to the particular issue at hand, the study cited doesn't say anything about Mormon LGBT youth and suicide ideation or Mormon LGBT youth and homelessness (or anything about Mormonism period). The take-away is summarized in the abstract (which I believe is available to people without journal subscriptions) is that more family rejection equals worse mental health outcomes. So again, I'm willing to be shown that I'm wrong on this point, but nobody seems to be able to point me to some kind of a rigorously conducted, representative comparative study to establish the nexus of claims that tie Mormonism, LGBT identification, family rejection, suicidality, and homelessness together.

Thanks again for your attention. I certainly don't want to be seen as subtly implying that "all is well in Zion" on this point, just that those of us who are trying to make the case that it isn't should be more careful about our empirical claims. At the end of the day nobody is helped by faith promoting rumors.

Thanks again for your comment!



VII. Jonathan Ellis

Thank you for the thought-provoking article!

I was curious about the “growing body of research literature that associated masturbation with poor measures of sexual health,” so I looked up the article by R.M. Costa cited in support of this idea. Unfortunately, I came away less than impressed.

Masturbation is Related to Psychopathology and Prostate Dysfunction: Comment on Quinsey reads more like a letter to the editor than a serious review of the literature. Costa depends heavily on citing himself and a couple co-authors, and where he cites others, he does so in what I can only describe as a misleading fashion. I looked at four examples and saw the same pattern in each where Costa blames masturbation for a correlated problem, when according to the cited studies it is the other way around -- a sexual problem often results in increased masturbation to compensate.

Aniruddha Das, Masturbation in the United States: Costa cites this as supporting his statement that “greater masturbation frequency is associated with less happiness.” Das does report such an association, but according to Das the causality runs the other way: those who are unhappy masturbate more frequently as a kind of self medication. (Das also found that masturbation frequency correlates positively with education. Again, it is the education that results in increased masturbation rather than the other way around.) The suggestion that masturbation contributes negatively to happiness or health is nowhere to be seen. Rather, Das concludes that

[M]asturbation-partnered sex linkage, often conceptualized either as compensating for unsatisfying sex or complementing a satisfactory sex life, appeared to be bimodal for both genders. In other words, for some (perhaps sexualized) women and men, masturbation seemed to complement an active and pleasurable sex life, while among others, it compensated for a lack of partnered sex or satisfaction in sex.

Penny Frohlich and Cindy Meston, Sexual functioning and self-reported depressive symptoms among college women; also Jill M. Cyranowski et al., Lifetime Depression History and Sexual Function in Women at Midlife. Costa cites these as demonstrating that “greater masturbation frequency is associated with more depressive symptoms.” Again, it is true that there is such a correlation, but the causality is the opposite of what Costa implies. Here is Frohlich and Meston’s discussion of their findings:

Women with depressive symptoms also reported a greater desire to engage in masturbation and were more likely to have engaged in masturbation during the past month compared with control women… One potential explanation for why women with depressive symptoms reported a greater interest in masturbation than control women is that they were less satisfied with their sexual relationships… An alternative explanation of these findings is that women with depressive symptoms may desire more masturbation because it provides a reliable form of pleasure.

Finally, I looked at Makeda Gerressu et al., Prevalence of masturbation and associated factors in a British national probability survey, cited by Costa as demonstrating that “greater masturbation frequency is [often] associated with impaired sexual function.” Once again, Costa mistakes correlation for causation. Gerresu reports that “Among both men and women, reporting masturbation increased with higher levels of education and social class and was more common among those reporting sexual function problems,” but increased masturbation is the result and not the cause of functional problems and increased education. Gerresu’s discussion agrees with Das that masturbation can be both a compensating and a complementary activity:

[I]t is difficult to avoid the conclusion that masturbation for many predominantly heterosexual men may represent a substitute for vaginal sex, while for women the practice appears to be part of the wider repertoire of sexual fulfilment, supplementing, rather than compensating for, partnered sex among women. Some women may be more sexually adventurous and more interested in sex, and this phenomenon may be reappearing in the context of masturbation.

While it may well be true that masturbation can be psychologically unhealthy, we must look elsewhere for evidence of this. Costa’s sources do not support his claims, and upon closer inspection actually contradict him.


VIII. Stephen Cranney responds to Jonathan Ellis

Thank you for the thorough comment.

Yes, the fact that these associations are correlational presents us from making any statements about causality one way or another. (Side note: to establish causality people would basically have to be assigned to masturbate varying amounts after their baseline frequency is measured--I'm surprised more research along this line hasn't been done, but I haven't reviewed the literature myself in a while so it might have been done recently).

Ergo the Costa article was careful to use the word "association." The myth stated was that "psychological research has shown that masturbation is healthy for your sexuality," which is slightly but importantly different from saying that evidence has shown that masturbation is deleterious to your sexuality. Specifically, the former places the onus of evidence on people saying that it causes healthy sexuality, whereas the latter places the onus on people saying that it causes unhealthy sexuality. It is true that there is a long history of unsupported folkloristic beliefs about the negative consequences of masturbation (it will turn men into a crazed rapists, it causes blindness, infertility, etc.), and I get the sense that because of this legacy people are hesitant to say anything negative about masturbation. So yes, causality is yet undetermined on both ends, so the myth that psychological research has demonstrated that it is a plus for your sexual health remains a myth, no such consensus exists in the empirical literature (although a lot of the more theoretical scholars think that it does, but without actual data designed to address the question they don't have a lot to stand on). On the question of whether it has a negative or neutral effect, the overall negative correlation seems to suggest that that possibility is more plausible than a positive one, but again without a study designed to get at causality that conclusion is still speculative.

Finally, I also admit in this longer treatment of the subject that I am speaking very broadly. The effects of masturbation may be moderated by a range of variables. I'm thinking most specifically of gender, but age, pornography use, relationship status, and overall health may also change the size or direction of the effect. Once again, more research designed to address causality is required, but it remains true that the conventional wisdom among some that there's an overwhelming consensus that masturbation is good for your sexual health, and that anybody that suggests otherwise is echoing long-discarded myths, is false. Yes, there's a legacy of unfounded myths on this subject, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's all good. More research is needed.

It's also worth mentioning as a quick appendix that (at least in 2015), theologically the masturbation prohibition (as outlined in the For the Strength of Youth) doesn't rely on the myths about masturbation like the idea that it causes homosexuality, etc; like so much else in the Church, ultimately the core justifications are independent of the findings of the academic research. This isn't an attempt to pull the GA-said-so trump card, or a retreat to the bastion of empirical untouchability that is theology, but just a quick but important additional note.

Thanks again!



IX. Jonathan P. Bench

I have a liberal arts background and have not often considered the scientific arguments behind the earth being extremely old and the idea of evolution. I never had any reason to doubt the idea that other species evolve, but I have generally hung my hat on scriptures such as D&C 76:24 (“the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God”) and the 1909 First Presidency Statement on “The Origin of Man,” which was reprinted in the February 2002 Ensign. When I read your statement, I wondered how quickly the various races could have developed from Adam and Eve. We do not know what skin color or physiological features Adam and Eve had. Does it follow then that all of us who live now on the earth are their literal descendants? If not, where do the rest of us fit into the family of Adam and Eve? Did we have multiple Adams and Eves but the prophets who were the source of the Bible (including Jesus Christ) only came through the “original” Adam and Eve? This 2006 article in the Deseret News was interesting reading relating to the history of the Church’s positions: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/635188399/No-definitive-LDS-stance-on-evolution-study-finds.html?pg=all . I love the idea of addressing myths in our LDS culture so we (even liberal arts majors!) do not come across as being out of touch with sound scientific principles. It’s very hard to share the gospel if we do not come across as credible people.


X. Stephen Cranney replies to Jonathan Bench

Hi Jonathan, thanks for your questions. As far as the First Presidency statement goes, I actually don’t have a strong background knowledge of the history of such statements. I know that the Biology Department at BYU has a packet that summarizes the history of the Church’s stance on human evolution, and you are right that this Deseret News article that summarizes the history quite well: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/635188399/No-definitive-LDS-stance-on-evolution-study-finds.html?pg=all. Although in general I know that there have been a wide variety of different stances from different Church leaders, what’s true is true regardless of who said what. On this point I like the approach Brigham Young took in a talk (minus the part where he refers to others' sincerely held religious beliefs as "baby stories"):

“You believe Adam was made of the dust of this earth. This I do not believe, though it is supposed that it is so written in the Bible; but it is not, to my understanding. You can write that information to the States, if you please—that I have publicly declared that I do not believe that portion of the Bible as the Christian world do. I never did, and I never want to. What is the reason I do not? Because I have come to understanding, and banished from my mind all the baby stories my mother taught me when I was a child.” (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 2)

I should mention at the outset that this is outside my area of specialty, so I’m speaking here mostly as an individual who just tries hard to stay educated about these things. In regards to Adam and Eve, I think a lot of the answers hinge on what characteristics Adam and Eve have to have for them to remain Adam and Eve. My blurb was specifically directed to the concept of Adam and Eve held by some that, 1) They lived within historical, record-keeping time (so less than approximately 10,000 years ago), 2) All human beings are descended from them, 3) they were the only source of genetic material for all humanity (i.e. their children did not have children with other non-descendants of Adam), and 4) they were the first human beings.

# 1 could be true if we don’t require 3-4. Adam and Eve could have been prophets that stood at the head of civilizational existence for humankind, and some version of the Fall could have happened that made man accountable, for example. However, some would argue that without #3-4 they wouldn’t really be Adam and Eve.

Since I wrote the blurb it has since been called to my attention that some of the lower bound estimates for time to most recent common ancestor are actually within historical time. (http://steveolson.com/uploads/2009/04/nature-common-ancestors2.pdf), so I suppose that # 1 and #2 could be simultaneously true. #4 and #1 are mutually incompatible since anatomically modern humans far predate written records (~200,000 years ago). From my understanding of the literature on endangered species conservation (admittedly, I’m far out of my field at this point), it is very difficult for an endangered species to rebound once their numbers drop below a certain point, since inbreeding makes species viability difficult, so #3 seems highly unlikely, and it’s completely incompatible with # 1 since such a massive bottleneck down to only two individuals only 8,000 years ago would have been picked up with genetic analysis. Finally, in my comment to Brad Zwahlen I made the point that if #4 were true it would be interesting to know at what point an individual became a “human being,” since the evolution process is so gradual (which isn't to suggest that there is not such a discrete benchmark that God set, only that it would be interesting to know what it is).

Of course, with God everything is possible, so I suppose God could have made it so that the inbreeding among Adam and Eve’s children didn’t cause issues, etc., but again it comes down to your prior beliefs about how God runs things. The idea of God intervening like that and covering it up doesn’t sit well with me.

Anyway, once we recognize which of the items mentioned above are incompatible, then I suppose we can cobble together the ones that are compatible to give us some idea about the possibilities of Adam and Eve. On some level I don’t know how fruitful that would be, since, as I mentioned earlier, the theological aspects of the fall are what really matter, and if God isn’t clear about the matter then whether Adam had a belly button probably isn’t important, easily falling into how-many-angels-can-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin realm.

In regards to your specific speculations:

“I wondered how quickly the various races could have developed from Adam and Eve.”

The first order of business is to specify what we mean when we talk about “race.” Earlier in the 20th century people often thought of races as different family groups, with a white family group that was all related to each other, a black family group, etc. (many early 19th century commentators even speculated about which descendants of Noah were responsible for which races.) It’s becoming increasingly clear that this picture is not true. “Race” is a category that we’ve imposed on people due to various physical attributes, and has very little to do with genetics. For example, there’s a good chance that I as somebody who is clearly and visually of European descent have more in common genetically with President Obama with his Kenyan father than an African American descended from West Africans brought over during the Atlantic slave trade, especially since Africa has a tremendous amount of genetic diversity. However, we tend to mask all of this diversity under the racial category of “black,” when in fact people of African descent come from a wide variety of different branches of the human family tree.

But I get the spirit of your point, which is how quickly can people change from an original family unit. On this point we actually have a very good idea, and this presents one of the evidences for the age of not only humans but all different forms of life. It’s kind of exciting. We have a general idea of how often genes change due to fluke mutations, so if we count up the number of changes between any two people or organisms, we can come up with a general idea of how long it has been since the two people or organisms shared a common ancestor.

"We do not know what skin color or physiological features Adam and Eve had . . . "

Again, it depends on what Adam and Eve were. If they were Hebrew prophets then they probably looked like Middle Easterners. If they were the first anatomically modern human being then they were black (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_skin_color#Evolution_of_skin_color) . Interesting thought considering that virtually all of the art portrays them as white, as if that’s the default.

"Does it follow then that all of us who live now on the earth are their literal descendants? If not, where do the rest of us fit into the family of Adam and Eve?"

In regards to direct genetic relation, as Mormons we often speak of being of the “seed of Abraham,” by adoption, so we’re no stranger to the idea of being identified with somebody’s family without literal genetic descent. I think that the idea of us being identified with the family of some ancient figures who, through some exercise of agency, caused the Fall and made us morally accountable to God, without being exclusively or literally descended from them should be palatable to Mormons.

Anyway, thanks Jonathan, I’ve enjoyed fleshing out the Adam and Eve point a little bit more. Interestingly it seems that point was the most disconcerting for the more orthodox side, so I appreciate the opportunity to talk about it more. And thanks for all your contributions as a liberal arts major. We need you too!


XI. Vicki Jo Anderson

I have read your previous article and enjoyed it very much.  However, this article felt strained in some places in an effort to make your point.    One "fact"  that bothers me is your source under Conservative Myth 6, "The United States is awesome." You use as one of your sources to substantiate this is a myth, the Constitution of the United States.  The part you use to prove your point is that the Constitution makes slaves 3/5 of a person and without any background information you allow the reader to assume that the founders' philosophy of the slave was flawed.  A little research into the subject would have been enlightening.  First of all the slave states wanted to count slaves as property, but when it came to figuring out how many representatives in Congress each state could have, all the sudden they wanted a full body count of all the whites and all the slaves.  In order to keep the slave states from permanently having the votes to perpetuate slavery forever, the founders compromised to count them as only 3/5 of a person. If all the slaves could have been counted as a whole person, this country would of become wholly slave.  This was just one of their efforts to stop slavery.  It was because the founders  knew it was a moral wrong and were hoping for its eventual demise by such  limitation they put this section in the Constitution.   In Article 1, section 9 the founders were hoping to see the end of slavery by prohibiting the importation of slaves after 20 years. The 20 years was a grace period compromise with the South.  I do agree the section on run away slaves is offensive to our Christian sensibilities, but these men took their guidance from the Bible.  I believe they compromised on the run away slave issue because that was the law in the Old Testament.  (see 1Kings 2:39-41) 


XII. Tyler Pedersen

Thanks for your articles. They were great.

Regarding human evolution, have you ever read the following article? The 100,000-200,000 years is based on an assumed mutation rate that is much less frequent than that observed in actuality. Actual observed mutation rates place an Adam and Eve at a time around 6,000 years ago. You are right that it is stupid to be dogmatic on this point. A pharisaical interpretation of the scriptures can destroy faith when insisting that any perceived discrepancy with science proves the science wrong. I think that God certainly could have used evolution to create humans with a virus inserting a critical piece of genes to turn on a master gene, activating the modern human brain and consciousness.

I discovered this article while an undergrad while writing a paper for human evolution 15 years ago. There has, to my knowledge, been any explanation for the discrepancy. The clearly well documented massive miscalculation about the calibration of the mitochondrial clock has been swept under the rug seemingly.

Calibrating the Mitochondrial Clock Ann Gibbons (1998). “Calibrating the Mitochondrial Clock” Science 279: 28-29. Copyright 1998, American Association for the Advancement of Science. http://www.sciencemag.org (Direct link: http://www.dnai.org/teacherguide/pdf/reference_romanovs.pdf)

Mitochondrial DNA appears to mutate much faster than expected, prompting new DNA forensics procedures and raising troubling questions about the dating of evolutionary events… Troubled by the discrepancy in their results, the scientists have pooled their data with a few other studies showing heteroplasmy, hoping to glean a more accurate estimate of the overall mutation rate. According to papers in press by Parsons, and Stoneking and Gyllensten, the combined mutation rate-one mutation per 1200 years--is still higher than the one mutation per 6000 to 12,000 years estimated by evolutionists, although not as fast as the rate observed by Parsons and Howell. "The fact that we see such relatively large differences among studies indicates that we have some unknown variable which is causing this," says Gyllensten…
Regardless of the cause, evolutionists are most concerned about the effect of a faster mutation rate. For example, researchers have calculated that "mitochondrial Eve"--the woman whose mtDNA was ancestral to that in all living people--lived 100,000 to 200,000 years ago in Africa. Using the new clock, she would be a mere 6000 years old.
No one thinks that's the case, but at what point should models switch from one mtDNA time zone to the other? "I'm worried that people who are looking at very recent events, such as the peopling of Europe, are ignoring this problem," says Laurent Excoffier, a population geneticist at the University of Geneva. Indeed, the mysterious and sudden expansion of modern humans into Europe and other parts of the globe, which other genetic evidence puts at about 40,000 years ago, may actually have happened 10,000 to 20,000 years ago--around the time of agriculture, says Excoffier. And mtDNA studies now date the peopling of the Americas at 34,000 years ago, even though the oldest noncontroversial archaeological sites are 12,500 years old. Recalibrating the mtDNA clock would narrow the difference (Science, 28 February 1997, p. 1256).”