Mormonism as Evolutionary Exemplar

While teaching this past week, a curious thing happened: without having given it much thought, I found myself using Mormonism to illustrate all kinds of evolutionary theories regarding religion. Call it putting Mormon flesh on theoretical bones. For instance, we were examining this passage from Richard Sosis’ and Candace Alcorta’s article on costly signaling and religious behavior:

Religious behaviors often entail significant proximate costs, such as time, energetic, and material costs, as well as physical and psychological pain, that appear to be greater than any derived benefits. Consequently, religious behavior poses a genuine challenge for those who employ optimization, rational choice, or other egoistic based models to explain human behavioral variation. Researchers have sought to unravel this dilemma by positing somatic, reproductive, and psychological benefits conferred by religious behaviors on their practitioners that could outweigh these costs. Realized benefits include improved health, survivorship, economic opportunities, sense of community, psychological well-being, assistance during crises, mating opportunities, and fertility (see Reynolds and Tanner for a review).

The Reynolds and Tanner reference is to their book, The Social Ecology of Religion, in which they examine the various ways in which religions shape the human life cycle. As they put it:

“Religions, the world over, are concerned with human physical existence, human bodies, what they may and may not do, when they may and may not do it, how they should be conceived, born, fed, cleaned, dressed, and buried. [W]e take as our baseline the life cycle of ordinary people; we see this as consisting of a number of transitions, the points marked by van Gennep’s “rites of passage”; and we look at the ways they are managed by religions in all parts of the world.”

Reynolds and Tanner are interested in how religions function and structure lives on a daily and generational basis. Drawing their examples mostly from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, they assess how these “world” religions address pan-human issues: conception and contraception, infanticide and abortion, birth and childhood, adolescence, marriage and divorce, middle and old age, and death.

Any post-Neolithic or modern religion that doesn’t have something to say about these issues is probably extinct, or at least not very successful. Those religions that intuitively understand the importance of these issues, and explicitly address them, stand a much greater chance of surviving and being successful.

While Reynolds and Tanner occasionally mention Mormons, the references are brief and usually in the context of pointing out that non-smoking and non-drinking Mormons enjoy better health than most Americans. They also note that the Mormon emphasis on fertility results in higher birth rates. While not trivial, this barely scratches the surface of the myriad ways in which Mormonism inserts itself into rites of passage and life cycles. In doing so, it confers on its members — all of whom are required to engage in costly signaling — the benefits mentioned by Sosis and Alcorta: improved health, survivorship, economic opportunities, sense of community, psychological
well-being, assistance during crises, mating opportunities, and fertility.

So why was I drawing on Mormonism to illustrate these issues? I suspect it has something to do with a series of recent articles, each of which addresses some aspect of Mormonism that was new to me:

After reading these articles, it’s not hard to understand the success of Mormonism or why it might appeal to some.

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2 thoughts on “Mormonism as Evolutionary Exemplar

  1. Chris Tolworthy

    re: the “success of Mormonism”

    I’m probably far too late to comment, just stumbled across this now, but as an ex-Mormon (or rather, ex-COJCOLDS, I feel more Mormon since I resigned from the Utah branch) I feel I had to comment. I agree with everything you say, and would add that Mormonism is especially interesting now that it’s in decline. The “success of Mormonism” only applies to its growth phase up to the mid 1990s. While the numbers are still officially rising, and the church is investing huge amounts in PR, that’s due to the habit of counting everybody as an active Mormon until they are 110 years old, More objective studies indicate a church in crisis: very weak growth if any, and the younger generation leaving in unprecedented numbers.

    The details:

    Like you, I find Mormonism fascinating. We see the birth and apparent looming death of a minor world religion. Plenty of material here for any scholar methinks.

    PS my pessimism regarding Mormon growth is due to:
    1. the age of leadership. The president is in his 90s and his advisers are typically in their 80s. To make changes they must unanimously agree on how to react to a fast moving world. Historically they have usually been 20 years behind everyone else, e.g. on polygamy, civil rights, and now gay rights.
    2. the most pressing problem is information coming out on the Internet for all to see. E.g. skeletons on the cupboard. This is a problem the leadership seem unable to cope with except by retreating behind PR. Most of the leaders are not even aware of the problems, let alone use the Net.
    3. The long term decline predates the Net, and (in my view) can be traced to correlation, an attempt to centralize beginning in the late 1950s. This has sucked the life out of the church, and is entrenched ion the bureaucracy and how the leaders think.
    4. the need to maintain an image of never changing means the church is a very slow supertanker that would take decades to change its culture.
    5. There is precedent for admitting major changes in doctrine: the second biggest Mormon group, the Reorganized LDS church admitted it was wrong on some things back in the 1970s and promptly lost half its member. It’s now called the Community of Christ, and has settled down to being just another protestant sect. There is evidence that the mainstream COJCOLDS is trying to do the same thing but more quietly. Since President Hinckley in the 1990s the church has been back-peddling on controversial doctrines and mainstreaming like crazy (while investing heavily in real estate to tide itself over the future contraction).

    One other link, if you have any interest in the economic and political realities behind the curtain: if you can get past this guy’s idiosyncratic writing style then I can’t praise this work highly enough:

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Chris Tolworthy

    Edit: regarding the demographics podcast, the printed summary gives a pro-Mormon gloss. Mormonstories is a broadly pro-Mormon site. The actual audio is a little more damning, though it is rather long.

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