Inclusive Institutions and the Church

A few months ago, I posted about a new working paper exploring the origins of WEIRD psychology. A brand new job market paper builds on this research:

Political institutions, ranging from autocratic regimes to inclusive, democratic ones, are widely acknowledged as a critical determinant of economic prosperity (e.g. Acemoglu and Robinson 2012, North, Wallis, and Weingast 2009). They create incentives that foster or inhibit economic growth. Yet, the emergence and global variation of growth-enhancing, inclusive political institutions in which people broadly participate in the governing process and the power of the elite is constrained, are not well understood. Initially, inclusive institutions were largely confined to the West. How and why did those institutions emerge in Europe?

This article contributes to the debate on the formation and global variation of inclusive institutions by combining and empirically testing two long-standing hypotheses. First, anthropologist Jack Goody (1983) hypothesized that, motivated by financial gains, the medieval Catholic Church implemented marriage policies—most prominently, prohibitions on cousin marriage—that destroyed the existing European clan-based kin networks. This created an almost unique European family system where, still today, the nuclear family dominates and marriage among blood relatives is virtually absent. This contrasts with many parts of the world, where first- and second-cousin marriages are common (Bittles and Black 2010). Second, several scholars have hypothesized that strong extended kin networks are detrimental to the formation of social cohesion and affect institutional outcomes (Weber, 1958; Todd, 1987; Augustine, 1998). Theologian Augustine of Hippo (354–430) pointed out that marrying outside the kin group enlarges the range of social relations and “should thereby bind social life more effectively by involving a greater number of people in them” (Augustine of Hippo, 354-430 / 1998, p. 665). More recently, Greif (2005), Greif and Tabellini (2017), Mitterauer (2010), and Henrich (forthcoming) combined these two hypotheses and emphasized the critical role of the Church’s marriage prohibitions for Europe’s institutional development (pg. 2).

His findings?:

The analysis demonstrates that already before the year 1500 AD, Church exposure and its marriage regulations are predictive of the formation of communes—self-governed cities that put constraints on the executive. The difference-in-difference analysis does not reveal pre-trends and results are robust to many specifications. They hold within historic political entities addressing concerns that the relation is driven by other institutional factors and when exploiting quasi-natural experiments where Church exposure was determined by the random outcomes of medieval warfare. Moreover, exploiting regional and temporal variation in marriage regulations suggests that the dissolution of kin networks was decisive for the formation of communes.

The study also empirically establishes a robust link between Church exposure and dissolution of extended kin networks at the country, ethnicity and European regional level. A language-based proxy for cousin marriage—cousin terms—offers a window into the past and rules out that the dissolution was driven by more recent events like the Industrial Revolution or modernization. Moreover, the study reports a robust link between kin networks, civicness and inclusive institutions. The link between kin networks and civicness holds within countries and—getting closer to causality—among children of immigrants, who grew up in the same country but vary in their vertically transmitted preference for cousin marriage. Kin networks predict regional institutional failure within Italy, ethnicities’ local-level democratic traditions and modern-day democratic institutions at the country level. Measures for the strength of pre-industrial kin networks rule out contemporary reverse causality or the possibility that the estimates are driven by contemporary omitted variables. The analysis also demonstrates that the association between kin networks and the formation of inclusive institutions holds universally—both within Europe and when excluding Europe and countries with a large European ancestry. This universal link strengthens the hypothesis that the Church’s marriage regulations, and not some other Church-related factor, were decisive for European development.

Underlying these early institutional developments was most likely a psychology that, as a consequence of dissolved kin networks, reflects greater individualism and a more generalized, impartial morality (Schulz et al. 2018). This is a building block not only for inclusive institutions but also for economic development more generally. For example, transmission of knowledge across kin networks and the shift away from a collectivistic culture toward an individualistic one, a culture of growth, may have further contributed to Europe’s economic development (Mokyr, 2016; de la Croix, 2018).

…To build strong, functional, inclusive institutions and to foster democracy, the potentially deleterious effect of dense kin networks must be considered. Also, simply exporting established formal institutions to other societies without considering existing kin networks will likely fail. Policies that foster cooperation beyond the boundaries of one’s kin group, however, have a strong potential to successfully diminish the fractionalization of societies. These can be policies that encouraging marriages across kin groups. More generally, policies that foster interactions that go beyond the boundaries of in-groups such as family, close friends, social class, political affiliation or ethnicity are likely to increase social cohesion (pg. 41-42).

Women Asked to Fast from Social Media by The Restored Church of Jesus Christ

Because internet outrage has an attention span of approximately 3.14159 seconds, and there were some submission and response delays, this story is no longer being discussed. However, since the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints will probably forever be accused of being anti-woman, we’re still going to publish it here at DR.

This was originally written about 2 weeks ago, in the full swing of the Latter-day Saint Woman Social Media Blackout, when George Takei finally shocked his fans with information about this LDS scheme to control women. When it got to this point, I couldn’t help but respond.

I hope whether you participated or not, and whether you liked the idea or not, that you can get something out of this…


On October 6 of this year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a historic meeting of the women of the Church. Twice a year, in April and October, regular Church services are suspended and 8 hours (yes 8!) of services are broadcast across the world from Salt Lake City in what is known as general conference. The 8 hours are done in 2 hour increments over Saturday and Sunday.

Prior to this October’s general conference, an extra Saturday evening session was held for the men of the Church (the general priesthood session), while women met a week before on Saturday evening (the general women’s session). However, this was the first meeting for women held during general conference weekend, as the men’s session and women’s session will alternate during the April and October sessions. Not the most exciting change (depending on your prospective), but a change nonetheless.

The women’s session is for all females ages 8 and up, and the men’s is for all males ages 8 and up. During this fall’s women’s session, President Nelson, the president and prophet of the Church, made four invitations for the women of the Church: 1. a 10-day social media fast, 2. read the Book of Mormon by the end of the year, 3. attend or learn about the temple, and 4. participate in Relief Society (the last was directed to adult women as it is the women’s organization of the Church for those 18 and older).

Before we get all frothy at the mouth about De Oppression of De Womenz by De Menz (TM), let’s take a moment to think through the largest complaints about the social media invitation and also think of ways to make this request work for a variety of women in a variety of circumstances. Most of the following is directed to members of the Church, but many outside the Church may find it informative. Full disclosure: I am a female member of this Church, and I have not yet participated in the social media fast.

Addressing the Major Complaints

Complaint 1: Right before elections.

I had seen this complaint many times, and eventually I decided to look at the numbers. The invitation was made October 6, and elections are November 6. That’s 31 days. Even if you started the fast on October 7, you still have 3 weeks to get informed on the election, if you’re not already. Plus, there are plenty of news sites that provide better election commentary and information than social media. Please don’t get all of your election information from social media (can mouth-frothers become a thing? because I think that’s what social media produces). Read a variety of reputable national and local news sites, and watch the news on TV, if you still have it. QED, you are informed ladies.

Complaint 2: Women use social media to work.

Keep going to work, y’all. I don’t think there’s any reason to stop working to continue this fast. Just like we don’t stop taking medicine when we fast from food, and some professions have to work on Sundays, we don’t need to kill our livelihood for this request. President Nelson himself said “Pray to know which influences to remove during your fast.” It may also be a great time to set up a business page/account if all of your work is through your personal page/account.

Complaint 3: Only the Women.

I’ve seen this combined more sinisterly with Complaint #1. Keep all the women uninformed before the election! However, the meeting included all females ages 8 and up and was worldwide, for a Church that has more members outside the United States than inside. So the idea that this was supposed to keep women in the USA specifically uninformed before the election is quite silly and really ignoring the reality of the Church.

Could this request have been made to everyone during the general attendance meetings? Of course. Why wasn’t it? I don’t know, I think that’s for every member of the Church to determine for themselves, and hopefully in a way that attempts to be generous to our leaders.

The fact of the matter is, men get requests from the Church’s leadership and sometimes women don’t get those same requests, or don’t get them as often. I’ve never heard anyone complain about that. Are the optics iffy when a male-led (if you only think of priesthood leaders) Church asks women to do something, but not the men? Yes. Does it mean it’s automatically sinister? No. And, let’s be honest, maybe some of us are placing social media on too high of a pedestal when thinking about this invitation.

Ideas to Make the Fast Work for You

When thinking about these complaints, I thought of several ways that women could follow the fast in a way that works for them. We have commandments where the leaders of the Church have said it’s up to you to prayerfully determine how to follow this commandment. And those are commandments, not requests (or invitations, even less of a requirement). So, determine how this can work for you, I’m sure there are lots of other ways than those below. I’ll again refer to President Nelson’s specific words, “Pray to know which influences to remove during your fast.”

Idea 1: Ask your family to join you, yes even the men and boys. Honestly, if my kids were old enough to be on social media (some of their friends are but it’s a while off for mine), this is definitely the direction I would go. Plus, in the same session, President Eyring made it very clear that women are supposed to be the guiding force of spiritual education in the home. USE YOUR POWER LADIES.

Idea 2: Do the fast on Sundays, or another day of the week. Fast every Sunday. Fast every fast Sunday. If you’re already doing this, add an extra day somewhere. Yes, it may provide more of a shock to the system to do it all at once, but maybe family contact or working is not something you can just give up for 10 days straight.

Idea 3: Fast from personal social media, but not business social media. Plenty of women make money by advertising or running their business on social media. See Complaint #2 if you need more convincing.

Idea 4: Do it with a friend and keep each other entertained via text message. I think a social media fast can help us connect with our families more, but it can also help us connect with our friends. Send each other pictures, send each other funny thoughts. If you’re already doing this, start including other people you’d like to have more contact with. If social media is one of the few places you get to communicate with other adults (I’m looking at you new/young moms), don’t lose contact! You need it!

Idea 5: Fast from the worst parts of social media. I’ve already spent a lot of time “unfollowing” many a person and blocking many a group on Facebook so my news feed isn’t full of stuff that stresses me out. But, when thinking about the fast, I’ve realized there is probably a lot more cleaning house I can do. Take the time to filter your feed (and continue to do so as with Facebook more new stuff will start to appear). Or fast from particular social media sites that seem to make you feel the worst after visiting them.

I hope everyone is feeling a little more calm and a little more empowered about this request. You’re awesome ladies, keep doing your thing, and always do what’s best for you and your family. I’ll give you an example of how I am responding to one of the invitations. I had already planned to finish the Book of Mormon by the end of the year. I’m in Alma. I am NOT starting over. And, in fact, I’ve been reading scriptures in a different way recently: for the most part, I listen to the scriptures on the Church’s Library app. I’ve found a lot more enjoyment with this approach, so I’ll continue to “read” the scriptures this way when I can.

PS: I had this thought when reading some media portrayals of the social media fast. If the only sites you are reading about this request are still calling the Church “the Mormon Church,” then it should already viewed as suspect. Either this is not a real journalist, or it is a journalist who is purposefully ignoring the Church’s new style guide (even in just the headline – the editor should follow the style guide). It doesn’t mean everything they have to say is inaccurate or from a particular agenda, but their objectiveness may be in question.

PPS: Since originally writing this, I have finished Alma! #hollah

Does More Education Mean Less Religion?

It depends. In a recent article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, sociologist Philip Schwadel finds that the effects of education depend on religious context during adolescence:

Results show that higher education is particularly likely to lead to religious decline for mainline Protestants and those with religiously active parents, and to increases in religiosity for the religiously unaffiliated and those with parents who infrequently attend religious services. Unaffiliated emerging adults and those from homes with parents who rarely attend religious services are, on average, less religious than other emerging adults, but, unlike most other emerging adults, they are likely to increase in their religiosity if they go to college. These findings demonstrate how the religious context in adolescence conditions the influence of education, both positive and negative influences (pg. 870).

In short, “the widespread view that education “erodes” religion (Johnson 1997) does not apply equally to all emerging adults, and the religious context in adolescence is one dimension along which it varies” (pg. 882).

This expounds on Schwadel’s previous work. For example, his 2016 article in The Sociological Quarterly found that “graduating from college is associated with declines in prayer, religious certainty, and especially religious belief during emerging adulthood” (pg. 778). However, he also found that “the highly educated are relatively likely to attend religious services. These results suggest that church pews are now disproportionately filled with college-educated young adults, many of who question key religious beliefs. This comports with a long tradition of sociological research (e.g., Fukuyama 1961; Roof 1976) that emphasizes that college students, and the college-educated more generally, often compartmentalize religion to weekend services and holidays (for more recent examples, see Campbell 2005; Clydesdale 2007)” (pg. 779).

When he did a 2015 cross-national analysis, Schwadel found that while those with university degrees had lower levels of religiosity overall, “sex, marital status, and age have considerably larger effects on religiosity than does higher education” (pg. 414). Furthermore, “the average level of higher education in each nation is not associated with individual religiosity” (pg. 414). In fact, GDP per capita has a much stronger, negative effect on religiosity than average levels of higher education. Most telling, however,  is the fact that “the effect of university degree ranges from robustly negative to positive. The largest negative effects of university degree are in Israel (b = −.427) and Italy (b = −.409). University degree has a relatively strong, positive effect (b > .16) in Sweden, New Zealand, and South Korea. Overall, the effect of university degree is positive and significant (p < .05) in 9 nations, negative and significant in 18 nations, and has no significant effect in 12 nations” (pg. 411). 

What’s more,

the negative effect of higher education on religiosity is more robust in relatively religious nations. This is evident both from the negative correlation between the random slope for university degree and the adjusted mean of religiosity (i.e., intercept), and from the positive interaction between university degree and the mean with no religion in each nation. These findings appear to support the diffusion argument that the highly educated are innovators and early adopters (Rogers 2003) of new ways of being religious (or irreligious) but that secularity then diffuses to the less-educated segments of the population. As Elias (2000) suggests in regards to attributes associated with the upper classes (e.g., manners), secularity may be a form of status differentiation for the highly educated in relatively religious nations, but it cannot serve that function in relatively irreligious nations (pg. 415).

All of this complicates the narrative of “more education = less religion.” Even Pew’s research from last year–which is often thrown out as evidence of the religiosity-killing nature of education–doesn’t vindicate the common narrative. While college-educated Americans are more likely to, say, identify as “atheist/agnostic”, their religious affiliation and church attendance is about the same as those who never finished/attended college.

College graduates, non-grads report attending religious services at similar rates

For Christians with college degrees, their religious commitment is basically the same as Christians without them. In fact, the college-educated Christian is more likely to attend weekly religious services than their less-educated fellow devotees. 

College-educated Christians about as observant as Christians with less education

A 2007 study actually found that “it is the respondents who did not go to college who exhibit the highest rates of diminished religiosity. Those with the highest level of education – the respondents with at least a bachelor’s degree – are the least likely to curtail.their church attendance. They are followed by those with an associate’s degree, then by four-year college students, and then two-year college students. The most educated are also the least likely to report a decrease in religion’s importance, although those who attended college but did not finish also report low levels of decline in religious salience” (pg. 1677). The researchers also found that “cohabitors are the most likely individuals to report each type of religious decline,” while married persons “are the least likely to report each type of decline” (pg. 1677). Premarital sex and marijuana use was also associated with declines in religiosity. Schwadel’s 2011 study also found that education “has a positive effect on religious participation, emphasizing the importance of religion, and supporting the rights of religious authorities to influence people’s votes. Increases in education do not diminish devotional activities or belief in the afterlife, though highly educated Americans disproportionately lean towards belief in a higher power rather than definite belief in God” (pg. 178).

But does education at least lead to more liberal religious beliefs? A 2011 study found

contrary to longstanding scholarly wisdom, attending college appears to have no liberalizing effect on most dimensions of religious belief. In fact, on some measures, college students appear to liberalize less than those who never attended college. College students are less likely to stop believing in a personal god and less likely to stop believing in the propriety of conversion attempts. On the other hand, they are more likely to develop doubts about their religious beliefs. In the main, however, the effect of college on students’ religious beliefs appears to be extremely weak. Although significant  minorities of emerging adults become more liberal in their religious beliefs, college itself does not appear to be the culprit. College students do not liberalize any more than those who do not go to college.

In fact, the case for the null (and perhaps protective) effects of college on traditional religious belief is even stronger than it appears from these results. In supplementary analyses (not shown), college attendance also failed to predict differences on six other variables measuring religious beliefs. College students are also no more likely than non-students to stop believing in a judgment day, stop believing in an afterlife, stop believing in angels, stop believing in demons (except in the final two models, where social networks appear to suppress a positive effect of college attendance), become more uncertain about the existence of God, or abandon the belief that active congregational participation is a necessary aspect of being religious. Thus, on 10 out of 13 possible beliefs, attending college shows no net liberalizing effect before accounting for social networks; on two others, college appears to support traditional beliefs; on only one outcome – increased religious doubt – does college appear to undermine traditional religious belief. In the debate over how college influences religious beliefs, this study overwhelmingly supports those who claim that its influence is largely negligible, and perhaps even somewhat protective of traditional religious belief (pg. 199-200).

Basically, when it comes to education and religion, it’s complicated. 

Prayer: Reorienting Desires and Rehearsing for Death

In his book Atheist Delusions, Orthodox philosopher David Bentley Hart writes,

[I]t is bizarre for anyone to think he or she can judge the nature or credibility of another’s experiences from the outside. If [Daniel] Dennett really wishes to undertake a “scientific” investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion (which…does not really exist), and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its phenomena from within. As a first step, he should certainly–purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor–begin praying, and then continue doing so with some perseverance. This is a drastic and implausible description, no doubt; but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or of what it is not (pg. 11-12).

Praying is an aspect of religion I actually struggle with. It’s very difficult for me, largely because it feels repetitive and admittedly silly. What’s more, it is difficult to stay focused. But this seems to be the nature of the beast. Mormon philosopher Adam Miller captures this well:

When you pray, notice how the same thing happens almost every time. You address God and then you start to think about what you should say and then this prompts you to think about something else and then, caught up in thinking about this other thing, you forget that you were saying a prayer. Your brain browns out. Eventually, after a few minutes, you remember why you were kneeling there in the first place. This moment is the key. When, for the first time, you remember this, your prayer can start for real…To pray is to practice remembering God. The more frequently you forget, the more chances you’ll have to remember, and the more you remember, the deeper your prayer will go. With patience and practice, you’ll remember God more often.

However, I’m beginning to think I need to try harder. Anglican priest Sarah Coakley provides some reasons in a 2012 interview:

It took me a long time to realize this, but I think that what seems to be our sheer incompetence in prayer is actually the place where something is happening: it is God invading our willed vulnerability. I think a lot of people try to pray and then give up. They feel it isn’t right for them, that they aren’t good at it. But prayer is not like riding a bicycle or getting a good grade on a term paper. It’s something sui generis precisely because relating to God isn’t like relating to anything or anyone else.

…Many traditions that are enfolded within Christianity plot a sort of progression to prayer, but I’m fairly resistant to the idea of progress as prayer because I have a strong sense that every time I try to pray I know I’m incompetent. At the same time, however, anyone who is seriously committed to prayer on a daily basis will know that things do start to happen: one is being transformed, one’s whole life is being drawn like a magnetized set of iron filings in a unified direction so the bits of one’s self that one thought were completely unconnected suddenly become vibrantly connected. The greatest writers on prayer in the Christian tradition tell us that once you seriously embark on this journey, it’s like giving your life away: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31 NRSV). And we could say that there are stages of progression in this journey, but it’s never for us to say where we are.

Now, I think that one of the most important things to happen in such a progression is a barely perceptible sharpening or transformation of the senses and the mind, partly because what we now call the unconscious is welling up and forcing itself to be integrated. We suddenly realize that we are seeing and knowing and responding to the world in ways that we didn’t before…[T]he basic idea is that our life is set on a course of transformation and purification. We are given a sensual life, an imaginative life, an affective life, and a noetic life, and each of these features of selfhood has to pass through transformation and purification en route to the vision of God. So of course that affects the mind, the senses, and the imagination.

She continues:

Christianity tells us that these senses ultimately unite in the beatific vision—because there could be nothing more joyous or transformative or pleasurable than being desired by God and responding in complete unity with God—but in the lower rungs of life we have to make choices about how we are going to spend our time, let our imaginations play, or direct our will. In prayer, particularly in silent prayer, these choices press on us in a way that is very disconcerting. We only have to spend about five seconds in silence before we’re thinking, “This is boring. Why don’t I go do something more interesting?” Our minds are immediately distracted with intense desires for cream buns or with random sexual fantasies. Laying ourselves out before God in a sort of naked way releases the imagination. It isn’t relieving; it’s humbling. It’s also quite funny—this is the lot of humanity! Yet if I were starving or dying of thirst, I would only have one interest: the desire to find something to eat or drink. This wandering of the mind—that I can wonder what video game I’m going to play or whether I’m going to have a diet Coke or a non-diet Coke—is thus a privilege of affluence. In North Atlantic culture I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that desires are all related in a kind of nexus, that our desire for a cup of tea is intimately, though not obviously, connected to our desire for sex, for power, and for influence, and these things are ultimately bound up with our desire for God. Silent prayer forces us to think about these puzzling connections and to order our desires in relation to God… Desire isn’t simply about sex; the tether of desire is the lot of humanity, and it requires spiritual and moral discernment. And theologically, I think our goal is to spread out these desires before God, to have them find their proper place. Some of these desires are strongly inflected by sin, and they need attention through grace and the Spirit. Other desires are not necessarily sinful but can get wrongly intensified; they can be in the wrong place or in the wrong order at the wrong time.

She concludes, “Prayer is this constant return to the place where one’s projects are frail and fallible and where one can only fall on God’s mercy. That’s the place God works. And God works powerfully there.” Perhaps prayer is an act of vulnerability and humility; what Coakley refers to below as “rehearsing for death.”

Perhaps I need to rehearse more.

On Contraceptives vs. Abortifacients

The political outrage of the moment is the assertion that SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh thinks that contraceptives and abortifacients are the same thing. HuffPost provides a sample article with the contention that “Kavanaugh] referred to contraception as ‘abortion-inducing drugs.'” and then a quote from the EVP of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund:

Kavanaugh referred to birth control ― something more than 95 percent of women use in their lifetime ― as an ‘abortion-inducing drug,’ which is not just flat-out wrong, but is anti-woman, anti-science propaganda.

This is a convenient narrative for pro-choice activists, who routinely smear the pro-life movement as being motivated by regressive prudery or just an outright “War on Women.” They would have you believe that pro-lifers are out to control women’s reproduction, and therefore pro-lifers oppose contraception and abortion as one and the same thing.

None of this is true.

First, it’s not true that the pro-life movement conflates contraceptives and abortifacients. These are two very different things. Abortifacients act after fertilization to cause the death of an innocent human being. Opposition to this–at least, in elective cases–is the core of the pro-life cause.

Contraceptives, on the other hand, act to prevent fertilization. If there’s no fertilization then no human life is at stake. So the pro-life movement has no relevance here.

It’s true that some pro-life people view contraception as immoral. It’s also true that some pro-life people would like to bring school prayer back. But just because they do, it doesn’t make school prayer a pro-life issue. It just shows that there’s overlap between people who are pro-life and people who like school prayer. Same concept here: there’s overlap between people who are pro-life and people who view contraceptives as immoral, but opposition to contraceptives (morally or legally) has nothing to do with the pro-life cause because there isn’t a human life directly at stake. 

Second, returning to Kavanuagh specifically: he knows this. Much as Planned Parenthood would like to scare up some more donor dollars by terrifying people with the specter of a crazed misogynist who can’t tell the difference between contraception and abortion, Kavanaugh’s dissent in Priests for Life vs. HHS (which is what Ted Cruz was asking Kavanugh about) makes clear that he is perfectly aware of the difference:

By regulation, that insurance must cover all FDA-approved contraceptives, including certain methods of birth control that, some believe, operate as abortifacients and result in the destruction of embryos.

Page 1 of Kavanaugh’s dissent.

The drug that Kavanugh is talking about is levonorgestrel. In low doses, levonorgestrel is a contraceptive that acts by preventing fertilization. This raises no pro-life concerns. But levonorgestrel is also available in a much higher dosage as the emergency contraceptive Plan B. In this higher dosage–and taken after sex (which is the whole point of an emergency contraceptive)–levonorgestrel may kick in after fertilization has already occurred and prevent an embryo from implanting. This is the scenario that concerns pro-lifers, because once fertilization takes place we have a new, living human being and the entire point of the pro-life movement is that it shouldn’t be legally permissible to electively kill human beings.

So, contrary to Planned Parenthood propaganda, Kavanaugh isn’t attacking all contraceptives. He’s not even attacking all uses of levonorgestrel. In fact, he’s not attacking anything at all.  He’s merely pointing out that “some believe” (i.e. Priests for Life believe) that in this particular case, levonorgestrel may act as an abortifacient and not as a contraceptive.

Is the concern reasonable? Probably.

The question of whether or not Plan B can act as an abortifacient is incredibly controversial because it has to do with abortion, but Wikipedia (with a citation) concludes that “While it is unlikely that emergency contraception affects implantation it is impossible to completely exclude the possibility of post-fertilization effect.”

One last important thing before we wrap up. There’s a lot of sophistry surrounding the issue of whether or not Plan B is an abortifacient. WebMD is a case-in-point:

Plan B One-Step is not the same as RU-486, which is an abortion pill. It does not cause a miscarriage or abortion. In other words, it does not stop development of a fetus once the fertilized egg implants in the uterus. So it will not work if you are already pregnant when you take it.

This is misleading because they’re relying on a technical definition of pregnancy that doesn’t have anything to do with the moral issue at hand. Their argument is that pregnancy starts at implantation rather than fertilization. If Plan B stops an embryo from implanting, then it hasn’t interrupted a pregnancy because technically the pregnancy hasn’t started yet. Therefore it can’t be an abortion, because there is no pregnancy to abort. This is all technically true and yet at the same time ethically irrelevant, since the germane issue is not whether a pregnancy has ended but whether or not a human life has ended. 

Other sources, like NPR, have covered the issue much more responsibly and still conclude that Plan B is not an abortifacient because it doesn’t block implantation, only fertilization. If that is demonstrably proven (my understanding is that the jury is still out) then Plan B will no longer be a pro-life concern.

Ultimately none of this will be persuasive to people who are pro-choice because it seems self-evident that an embryo only a day or so old is not really what we mean by “a human life” even if, speaking scientifically, it is in fact a distinct, living human organism. I understand that, and I’m not going to address that aspect of the debate today.

My point is simply this: Kavanaugh in particular did not conflate all contraceptives with abortifacients and the pro-life movement in general is similarly able to tell the difference between these two very distinct things.

T&S Review: Saints, Slaves, & Blacks

I have a review of Newell Bringhurst’s 2nd edition of Saints, Slaves, & Blacks at Times & Seasons. Some highlights:

Image result for saints slaves and blacksAccording to Paul Reeve, “one of [the book’s] most significant contributions…is…its exploration and thorough documentation of the racial universalism inherent in the first two decades of Mormonism” (pg. 193). As Bringhurst explains, “Initially, however, the status of blacks did not differ from that of any other ethnic group. As objects for probable Mormon salvation, black people fell within the purview of Mormon universalism. The Book of Mormon proclaimed a basic desire to preach the Gospel among all peoples, blacks as well as whites. “All men are privileged the one like unto the other and none are forbidden” (2 Ne. 26:28). Joseph Smith expressed this same universalism throughout the Doctrine and Covenants. According to Smith, the voice of the Lord was “unto all men” and he was “no respecter of persons” (D&C 1:2, 38:16).3 As for the gospel, it was “free unto all” regardless of “nation, kindred, [or] tongue” (D&C 10:51).4 “All those who humble themselves before God” would “be received by baptism into his Church,” including the “heathen nations” (D&C 20:37, 45:54). The Mormon Prophet instructed missionaries to go “into all the world” and preach the gospel “unto every creature . . . both old and young, both bond and free” (D&C 43:20). Finally, the Mormon gathering to Zion would include the righteous from “every nation under heaven” brought together “from the ends of the earth” (D&C 45:69, 58:9, 45)” (pgs. 32-33).

Another insight:

[W]hile I was already convinced of the theologically bogus nature of the temple/priesthood ban, I came across yet another reason to question its veracity: the whole notion of a temple/priesthood ban based on “lineage” is undermined by another teaching put forth by both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, namely that the Holy Ghost purges Gentiles of impurities and makes them the literal seed of Abraham. Bringhurst writes, “In fact, the Saints were anxious to “purge out . . . impure elements” not just from the larger Mormon community but also from the bodies of individual church members. This could be done, Young said, “through the Holy Ghost,” which could act upon individual Saints tainted with impure “Gentile blood.” These impurities would actually be purged “out of their veins” and replaced with the pure blood of Abraham. This process would remove impure “blood out” of the bodies of Mormons of varied ethnic backgrounds, including those who had the “blood of Judah”” (pg. 124).

I conclude,

I was admittedly hesitant when I was asked to reviewSaints, Slaves, & Blacks. Having read a good amount of the recent scholarship on the topic and knowing the book was a largely unchanged 2nd edition, I was worried that I wouldn’t have much to say about it. Fortunately, my worries were put to rest in the first chapter. Despite originally being published nearly 40 years ago, the scholarship still feels fresh and relevant. Bringhurst’s book simultaneously plays the role of both the foundation of and a contributor to modern scholarship on Mormonism and race. And we should be thankful to Greg Kofford Books for making it available once more.

Check it out.

Men, Religion, and Hormones

Related imageWomen worldwide tend to be more religious than men. In the United States, for example, self-identified Christian women are more religious than self-identified Christian men. Numerous possible reasons have been offered, from the social to the genetic. Last year, I highlighted a study that found religion to be less analytical and more pro-social: “In a series of eight experiments, the researchers found the more empathetic the person, the more likely he or she is religious. That finding offers a new explanation for past research showing women tend to hold more religious or spiritual worldviews than men. The gap may be because women have a stronger tendency toward empathetic concern than men.” As noted by economist Bryan Caplan, “Stereotypes about personality and gender turn out to be fairly accurate: on both Myers–Briggs thinking–feeling and FFM agreeableness, there are large male–female gaps in the expected directions. Women are about half a standard deviation more agreeable than men; on the binary Myers–Briggs measure, the thinking–feeling breakdown is about 30/70 for women versus 60/40 for men.” According to Pew,

Under the “nature” umbrella are theories that variously attribute gender differences in religious commitment to physical or physiological causes such as hormones, genes or biological predispositions.

For example, Baylor University sociologist Rodney Stark postulates that men’s physiology – specifically their generally higher levels of testosterone – accounts for gender differences in religion. His argument rests on what he views as increasing evidence that testosterone is associated with men’s greater propensity to take risks, which he argues is why men are less religious than women. By inference, women are more religious because they have less risk-promoting testosterone.

A new study offers some evidence for the testosterone theory:

From the analysis of over 1000 men, [Aniruddha] Das found that men with higher levels of the sex hormones testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) in their bodies had weaker religious ties.

“Religion influences a range of cultural and political patterns at the population level. Results from the current study indicate the latter may also have hormonal roots,” says Das. “There is therefore a need for conceptual models that can accommodate the dynamic interplay of psychosocial and neuroendocrine factors in shaping a person’s life cycle.”

He believes that more studies should be done to better understand how hormones, in particular, shape a person’s religious patterns in later life. This is of importance, as religion has been shown to have a positive influence on how people age and ultimately experience their later years. According to Das, the findings further point to biological reasons behind the particular personal networks and social affiliations that people form during the course of their lives.

Testosterone has been shown to reduce empathy, perhaps explaining why women tend to be more empathetic–and therefore, more religious–than men. As Steven Pinker explains, “Women have more intimate social relationships, are more concerned about them, and feel more empathy toward their friends, though not toward strangers.”

It’ll be interesting to see what future research finds.

DR Editor in Deseret News: The LDS Church and Immigration

Back when I published my immigration article in BYU Studies Quarterly, I was asked to write a condensed version for Deseret News as part of their “Faith & Thought” column. It was initially meant to provide more publicity for the latest issue of the journal. However, the article apparently ran into a few hiccups along the way. But with the LDS Church’s latest statement on immigration policy in the US, it looks like the article was able to be pushed through. Though my critical tone was muted a bit by the editors (I come off as far more moderate than I actually am on the matter), I’m happy to see it in print. A few highlights:

A cursory acquaintance with LDS history and scripture shakes up caricatures of migrants by reminding the faithful that many revered prophets in LDS scriptures were themselves migrants. It’s easy to forget that the story of migration is the story of holy writ. God’s biblical people were often displaced and migrating, often due to persecution or war. Consider the exile of Adam and Eve, Abraham’s overland journeys, Jacob and his family’s famine-driven journey into Egypt, the Exodus, the deportations under the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the Jewish dispersions under the Greeks and Romans, Christ’s status as a refugee in Egypt and the early Christian scatterings.

The Book of Mormon contains similar accounts, detailing numerous mass migrations, including the departure of Lehi’s family from Jerusalem to the New World and that of the Jaredites from Babel to the promised land. Even the early years of the LDS Church started with several interstate migrations (often due to local persecution and governmental hostility), from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois until the Saints’ eventual settlement in what was then Mexican territory (Utah). As recent events have revealed, it can be easy to assume the worst about migrants from a comfortable, settled position. However, the scriptures and Mormon people’s own history disturb any negative, simplistic ideas about the worth and dignity of migrants in God’s eyes.

Furthermore, one of the most prominent and consistent themes throughout the Judeo-Christian scriptural canon is the obligation to care for those in need. Included among the list of the disadvantaged classes in need of provisions and protection — widows, orphans and the poor — are also “strangers” and “sojourners.”

The biblical tradition warns God’s people against “vexing” or “oppressing” the stranger. The book of Exodus reminds, “ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As many scholars have noted, hospitality was considered one of the highest virtues in antiquity, and the violation of this virtue through the mistreatment of the stranger seeking refuge is given in the Bible as one reason for the destruction of Sodom.

…Beyond religious and scriptural commitments, LDS statements acknowledge the positive economic impact of immigrants. The Utah Compact underscores the contributions immigrants make to their communities.

2011 meta-analysis by economist Michael Clemens found that dropping all current immigration restrictions would result in a doubling of world GDP. A more recent analysiscorroborated these findings, concluding that lifting all migration restrictions would increase world output by 126 percent. Similarly, a 2013 study found that dropping all immigration barriers would result in an additional income of $10,798 per worker (migrant and non-migrant alike); doubling the income of the world’s most deprived.

Despite these economic benefits, many rich country natives worry that an overabundance of immigrants will make things worse. Some accuse immigrants of stealing native jobs, depressing native wages, undermining native culture and institutions, bloating the welfare state, and/or being criminals and terrorists. The vast majority of empirical studies, however, contradicts these arguments. Several large literature reviews — including two from the National Academy of Sciences and one from Oxford University — find that the long-term effects of immigration on jobs, wages and the fiscal budget tend to be neutral to slightly positive. Immigrants also assimilate rather well into their host countries and even appear to boost the economic freedom of their institutions.

…In 2011 the church stated that “The history of mass expulsion or mistreatment of individuals or families is cause for concern especially where race, culture, or religion are involved.” The church called for “immigration reform” that adopts a “balanced and civil approach to a challenging problem, fully consistent with its tradition of compassion, its reverence for family, and its commitment to law.” Seven years later, perhaps the United States is now ready to listen.

Read the whole thing here.

Building a Life Story

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

The first time I wrote in my journal was in the days immediately after my baptism when I was 8 years old. I still have the pages somewhere in a box, including the hand-drawn map of the different routes I could take when I walked back and forth from school.

I have started and stopped journals countless times since then because it’s one of those things that, as Elder Groberg reminded us in Writing Your Personal and Family History, good Mormons are supposed to do.

As much as I enjoy writing, there’s always been one big thing inhibiting me from keeping a journal more reliably, and it is this: I don’t know what the real story is. This isn’t some weird post-modern hang-up, so much as it is (as far as I can tell) a weird psychological hang-up. I never know how I feel about things. Interrogating my true feelings about the things that are going on in my life is like collecting mist with a butterfly net. I can record the brute facts of my life—I can draw the map and label the streets—but I can’t tell you what those facts mean. Not even, and perhaps most especially, to me.

My inner life is an optical illusion. It is a collection of lines that looks like the inside of a cube one moment or the outside of a cube the next. It is a picture of a rabbit for a blink, and then it is a picture of a duck. It is two faces; it is a chalice. It is an old lady; it is a young woman.

This is why I spend almost no time at all thinking about my past. My friends and family all remember so much more of the things that I’ve been through than I do. For me, the past is like a crime scene, and I am afraid to contaminate the evidence. I have a superstitious belief that there is a true story, an objective reality, and I’m afraid that if I try to hard to find it then I will only erase it.

I have a couple of binders somewhere that contain all the letters that I sent home while I was serving my mission in Hungary and all of the letters that people sent to me. I think the binders were a gift when I got home, but I’m not sure. I’ve never opened them. I’m not sure where they are. I don’t even like to look at the binders, let alone consider reading the pages inside. Because my mission was the one time in my life when I acted like I knew what was going on and when I told everyone how I felt about things, and I’m afraid that it was all lies. It was the hardest time of my young life, and I have vague recollections of writing relentlessly optimistic and happy letters despite feeling so depressed that it felt like physical pain on most days. The whole thing is wildly embarrassing to me. I acted like I knew what was going on. I had no idea. I have lived almost as many years after my mission as I lived before it, and I still have no idea what was going on or why it was so hard for me.

If writing a journal is about writing the real story of my feelings, then I can’t write a journal for the simple reason that I don’t know my own story.

And yet, I should. Write a journal, that is. Like Elder Groberg says, writing a journal “helps immeasurably in gaining a true, eternal perspective of life” and “should be a great motivation to do what is right.” I know that’s accurate: the reflection of writing about my life has helped me put things into perspective.

Maybe that’s the point?

I’m teaching the Old Testament in Gospel Doctrine this year, and it’s a mess. We just made the transition from Joshua to Judges, and I taught about how all the mass slaughter that supposedly happened in Joshua is pretty flatly contradicted by Judges. On the bright side: you don’t have to believe in a genocidal God.  On the downside: it’s hard to make sense of all the contradictions. In Deuteronomy, we’re told a Moabite will never enter the assembly of the Lord until the 10th generation. Ruth, the hero of the Book of Ruth, is Moabite and that makes King David 1/8th Moabite. And, while we’re on the topic, how do we reconcile the apparent gap between the miracle-laden Exodus story and the miracle-free story of Ruth and Boaz?

The one encouraging thing is that, as I read Elder Groberg’s talk, I realize that the Old Testament is a mess in a lot of the same ways that my own life story is a mess.

There may be one, true, ultimate truth about everything. Not just the objective facts of life, but the subjective ones as well. Maybe there is an absolutely true narrative. But if there is, we will never know it in this life. In this life, stories are things we make up. Fictional stories are based on imaginary facts. And real stories—including history—is made up based on true facts. But they are both made up.

I’m not sure if I have that right or not, but it sounds promising. At the very least, it’s worth giving a shot. I’m going to try writing in my journal again, and this time I’m not going to try and find a life story. I’m going to use the raw materials of my experiences to build one.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

The DR Book Collection: Catch-Up #5

This is part of the DR Book Collection.

I’m once again behind on my book reviews, so here’s a list of the books I’ve read recently, their descriptions, and accompanying videos.

Image result for a universe from nothingLawrence M. Krauss, A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing (Free Press, 2012): “Bestselling author and acclaimed physicist Lawrence Krauss offers a paradigm-shifting view of how everything that exists came to be in the first place. “Where did the universe come from? What was there before it? What will the future bring? And finally, why is there something rather than nothing?” One of the few prominent scientists today to have crossed the chasm between science and popular culture, Krauss describes the staggeringly beautiful experimental observations and mind-bending new theories that demonstrate not only can something arise from nothing, something will always arise from nothing. With a new preface about the significance of the discovery of the Higgs particle, A Universe from Nothing uses Krauss’s characteristic wry humor and wonderfully clear explanations to take us back to the beginning of the beginning, presenting the most recent evidence for how our universe evolved—and the implications for how it’s going to end. Provocative, challenging, and delightfully readable, this is a game-changing look at the most basic underpinning of existence and a powerful antidote to outmoded philosophical, religious, and scientific thinking” (Amazon).

Image result for alive at workDaniel M. Cable, Alive at Work: The Neuroscience of Helping Your People Love What They Do (Harvard Business Review Press, 2018): “In this bold, enlightening book, social psychologist and professor Daniel M. Cable takes leaders into the minds of workers and reveals the surprising secret to restoring their zest for work. Disengagement isn’t a motivational problem, it’s a biological one. Humans aren’t built for routine and repetition. We’re designed to crave exploration, experimentation, and learning–in fact, there’s a part of our brains, which scientists have coined “the seeking system,” that rewards us for taking part in these activities. But the way organizations are run prevents many of us from following our innate impulses. As a result, we shut down. Things need to change. More than ever before, employee creativity and engagement are needed to win. Fortunately, it won’t take an extensive overhaul of your organizational culture to get started. With small nudges, you can personally help people reach their fullest potential. Alive at Work reveals:

  • How to encourage people to bring their best selves to work and use their greatest strengths to help your organization flourish
  • How to build creative environments that motivate people to share ideas, work smarter, and embrace change
  • How to enhance people’s connection to their work and your customers
  • How to create personalized experiences that help people feel a deeper sense of purpose

Filled with fascinating stories from the author’s extensive research, Alive at Work is the inspirational guide that you need to tap into the passion, creativity, and purpose fizzing beneath the surface of every person who falls under your leadership” (Amazon).

Image result for saints slaves and blacksNewell G. Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, & Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People Within Mormonism, 2nd ed. (Greg Kofford Books, 2018): “Originally published shortly after the LDS Church lifted its priesthood and temple restriction on black Latter-day Saints, Newell G. Bringhurst’s landmark work remains ever-relevant as both the first comprehensive study on race within the Mormon religion and the basis by which contemporary discussions on race and Mormonism have since been framed. Approaching the topic from a social history perspective, with a keen understanding of antebellum and post-bellum religious shifts, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks examines both early Mormonism in the context of early American attitudes towards slavery and race, and the inherited racial traditions it maintained for over a century. While Mormons may have drawn from a distinct theology to support and defend racial views, their attitudes towards blacks were deeply-embedded in the national contestation over slavery and anticipation of the last days. This second edition of Saints, Slaves, and Blacks offers an updated edit, as well as an additional foreword and postscripts by Edward J. Blum, W. Paul Reeve, and Darron T. Smith. Bringhurst further adds a new preface and appendix detailing his experience publishing Saints, Slaves, and Blacks at a time when many Mormons felt the rescinded ban was best left ignored, and reflecting on the wealth of research done on this topic since its publication” (Greg Kofford).

Image result for out of poverty powellBenjamin Powell, Out of Poverty: Sweatshops in the Global Economy (Cambridge University Press, 2014): “This book provides a comprehensive defense of third-world sweatshops. It explains how these sweatshops provide the best available opportunity to workers and how they play an important role in the process of development that eventually leads to better wages and working conditions. Using economic theory, the author argues that much of what the anti-sweatshop movement has agitated for would actually harm the very workers they intend to help by creating less desirable alternatives and undermining the process of development. Nowhere does this book put ‘profits’ or ‘economic efficiency’ above people. Improving the welfare of poorer citizens of third world countries is the goal, and the book explores which methods best achieve that goal. Out of Poverty will help readers understand how activists and policy makers can help third world workers” (Amazon).