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March 21, 2005

The evolution of Mormons

Deseret News has a long piece titled "Utah's non-war over evolution." It is somewhat rambling, but it should be viewed in light of the fact Ronald L. Numbers in The Creationists recounts that 'In 1935 only 36 percent of the students at the Mormon's Brighman Young University denied that humans have been "created in a process of evolution from lower forms." By 1973 the figure had risen sharply to 81....' The results at BYU might be due to decreased sample biasing as the student body increased in size, but, I think there is a real sociological process going on here: between 1930 and 1970 Mormons became, more or less, part of the American mainstream.1 And, to some extent they identified sociologically with conservative Protestants, who have been at the forefront of the "War against Evolution" since the rise of Darwinism in the United States.

But, note that the reporter is careful to highlight that the Latter Day Church's teaching on the topic of evolutionary theory is far more circumspect and constrained than the perception of the seminary teachers who provide Mormon youth with their religious education. I have posted about Mormon peculiarities in the realm of belief when Protestantism is taken as normative before, but, I think the attitude toward evolution among the Mormon laity2 is a reflection of sociological forces buffetting them in the sea of American culture in which their peculiar beliefs have no great impact. Many of my classmates in high school were Mormon, and when I discussed evolutionary theory with them I would generally encounter less hostility than from my evangelical peers, but overall they were "unbelievers." But, when I pressed them for theological or doctrinal justification for their position they could not produce anything, in contrast with evangelicals who often encountered Creationists literature at their church and so were ready with prefab talking points intelligible in their literalist worldview. My Mormon friends often ended up somewhat confused as to why they rejected evolutionary theory in the context of their religion, but I think the reality that my inquiries were exposing was that the Latter Day Saints are far more affected by the zeitgeist than they themselves are aware of.

This is I think part of a greater process of the canalization of various religious sects and denominations into a few broad rivers of practice and outlook in the United States. Because most Mormons have placed themselves within the "religious conservative" camp they have absorbed some talking points reflexively without further reflection as to whether it is truly in keeping with their explicitly stated religious beliefs. Over time I would not be surprised if the Creationist bent of the some of the laity percolates upward toward the Church Hierarchy (generally drawn from successful businessmen). The individualistic orientation of many American Roman Catholics also reflects their shaping by the American sociological landscape, and even relatively exotic religions like Islam are being stamped by the spirit of the times.

Update: Ex-Mormon A Clear Voice responds to my post. The response implies that the move toward Creationism among Mormons might be the result of their move toward assimilation into self-identification as mainstream Christians. I would like to point out that that Creationism is only strongly identified with conservative Protestants. Most American Catholics and mainline Christians are theistic evolutionists. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, historically related to the more numerous Mormons, has basically morphed into a moderate Protestant denomination for operational purposes. So the Mormon move toward Creationism is not just identification with Christianity and a shift away from their pride in deviance from the norms of worldwide Christian faith, but an identification with conservative Protestanism. Additionally, I would argue that Creationism is often relatively ancillary to conservative Protestant thought, that is, it is implied by their literalist beliefs, but, it is not a pillar of their faith. The Mormon shift toward implicit Creationism to me suggests that cultural undercurrents have reshaped the Latter Day Saints zeitgeist without their full knowledge.

A Clear Voice seems to put more emphasis on the hierarchy and a top-down concept of religious worldview. This certainly makes sense, and it is more appropriate in the Mormon context than in the Protestant one (where schism is socially acceptable and almost inevitable). It seems likely that structural constraints of Mormon theology might always prevent their full assimilation into the conservative Protestant subculture, for unlike the Reorganized Church of Latter Day Saints, Mormons reject the Trinity, a key item of belief for nearly all the world's Christians. In contrast, Creationism is a point of commonality which is not obstructed by the peculiarity of the Mormon theology, a way to bridge the chasm between conservative Protestants and themselves.

Mormons are an important illustration of the salience of both explicit and implicit religious beliefs and doctrines in the shaping of a community.

1 - The growth of the Mormon religion in this period also was driven partly by conversion of non-Mormons who may not have shed all their prior preconceptions or values.

2 - Since Mormons do not have a professional priesthood I use the term loosely.

Posted by razib at 10:57 AM