Saturday, October 04, 2003

Esteemed Elders,

It has been too long. Once again I apologize for not having frequented these halls more often. I would like to thank the Lawyer for posting the link to Loomis’ paper. The statistical issues involved in forecasting are certainly interesting. However, the biggest theoretical problem that one faces is not in the math (barring complex interaction effects and the like), but interpreting the data that serves as ones baseline assumptions. To put it bluntly, forecasting requires a good understanding of where you are and what forces are at work at this moment before you can say anything about the future. Yet as we all know those are notoriously difficult questions to answer. To be safe one would really like about 20 years of hindsight, but this sort of exercise never gives you that opportunity. So is LDS growth in a temporary slump (say, because of the immense resources that have been directed towards temple building), or has there been a fundamental change in our growth pattern (because the children of converts often become inactive, and rarely go on missions)? Who knows. If forecasting was easy and reliable Loomis’ and myself would both be stock-market millionaires rather than social scientists. The fact that neither of us are millionaires (to the best of my knowledge) would indicate that sometimes these tools are not as sharp as we would like to think.

I’m not really surprised by Loomis’ findings, and I’ve been thinking some of the same things myself for a while. I think he is low-balling his figure (mostly because we disagree on when the geometric growth phase will/did end). But in the long run I think that whether there are 30, 100 or 200 million Mormons in 2080 makes precious little difference. Here is the reason why.

The prevailing trend among LDS futurologist is to examine the future in terms of how many Mormons there will be. This is typical of our communities self-absorbed approach to history. If this is how one frames the issue then Stark’s original projections seem very exciting. We really would be the first new world religion since Islam (even if on a much smaller scale than any previous ‘world religion’).

Very few of these futurologists remember that there are groups other than Mormons in this world, nor do they take the next step and ask how some of these are going to be faring in the year 2080. Often (though not always) basic demographic trends, like the projected explosion in the population of the global south are ignored.

So what will the world look like as we pass the mid-mark of this century, and how hospitable will it be to Mormonism and its unique understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ? Once again, these are open questions that are going to be very difficult to answer. A huge amount rests on the validity of basic assumptions like the accuracy of the UN’s population projections for different areas of the world. But some people have started to ask these questions.

First among them was Phillip Jenkins in his work, published by the Oxford UP, entitled The Next Christendom: the coming global Christianity. Jenkins is a prominent Catholic apologist and respected professor of Religion at the University of Pennsylvania for those of you who are unfamiliar with his work. This book begins with a brief history of Christian missionary efforts going back to the middle ages, which should be required reading for anyone who has ever asked questions like “I wonder why the church is growing so fast in Ghana (or Hong Kong or Brazil ect…) but not in X,Y or Z.”

He then explores the unique nature of the emerging Christianity of the global south (also a fascinating read). Two sets of projections are offered based on slightly different sets of basic assumptions about population growth rates and shifts in denominational success. Finally, the volume closes with a rather paranoid rant about how the Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists (sic!) will be coming to get us. While this may in fact turn out to be true, Jenkins indulges in the fallacy of “worst case” reasoning here and I would recommend just skipping this section and drawing your own conclusions about where the future fault-lines of cultural conflict are likely to be. Your guess is literally as good as his.

So what is the world going to look like in 2025? There are likely to be well over 1 billion Catholics (probably more like 1.5) even controlling for their declining position of dominance in South America. There will also be well over 1 billion Pentecostals. There will be at least 300 million members of “new religious movements” in Africa and Latin America (highly intercultrated but basically Christian groups). Additionally there will likely be another 1.5-1.7 billion Muslims, mostly dominating the Middle East and South Asia, but also making impressive gains in South East Asia. America is likely to be the only truly Christian nation in the northern hemisphere (one can already argue that this is the case).

The new face of Christendom will be southern, poor and very (very) conservative compared to what we are used to in America. Good luck to all the liberals who thought that the growing success of the missionary effort was going to lead to a more liberal church. Aside from the race issue, I expect to see retrenchment in all denominations that experience growth (look at the Pope’s last batch of Cardinals for instance).

Nor is this the sort of world that is going to be really happy to see young white men showing up on their doorstep and asking them if they want to know more about the Book of Mormon. I don’t think that the Lawyer needs to worry about restoring the “tension” between us and world. The dispute with the relatively mellow evangelicals of the North as to whether Mormons are “Christians” will be nothing compared to the problems we are going to be facing from Pentecostals and ultra-conservative catholic bishops in Africa and Latin America in the next couple of decades. Inter-community religious violence is increasingly common in many areas of the world, and we would be na├»ve to think that it could never happen to us (again). Though as was already pointed out this sort of opposition can certainly be played to our advantage over the long run.

But to return to my basic point, even if Stark’s original projections were right, and we followed the most optimistic growth projections we have, the entire LDS church will still be smaller than some of the more noteworthy Philippine or Chilean cults that Jenkins reviews in his book. Whether we have 30 million members, or 200 million members, we are still going to be in a distinctly minority position in what is likely to be an increasingly hostile and closed world. This is the eventuality that we need to be planning for.

Wednesday, October 01, 2003

WHY ZION HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH JUSTICE: I have been thinking about Zion and the concept of justice. I have reached a provisional conclusion that they have nothing to do with each other. Here is my argument:

Justice is a virtue that regulates social relationships. Solipsists need not be just, nor do those who live alone on distant islands. However, justice is not a virtue that regulates all social relationships. Here I borrow an idea elaborated by David Hume and John Rawls. The gist of it is that justice only comes into play under certain conditions. People in families do not regulate their relationships according to justice. Likewise, soldiers on a battlefield do not regulate their relationships according to justice. Rather, justice regulates relationships that lie between these two extremes. I think that there are essentially two conditions. First, the individuals feel entitled to exercise a reasonable level of self-preference. They are not entitled to trick and destroy as on the battlefield, but they are not required to exercise the altruism that one expects a parent to exercise toward a child. The second condition, is that resources are scarce enough that conflicts are inevitable. If three strangers live in the Garden of Eden, there may be so much in the way of food, space, beautiful places to live, etc. that no conflict ever arises. Justice thus exists in the gap between love and violence.

Zion, we are told in the scriptures, is a social relationship based on love. It is that love which accounts for the fact that members have claim on one another's resources and "there are no poor among them." I think that you see this worked out in the 19th century in the way in which church courts often resolved disputes in ways that disregarded the claims of justice. For example, you have lots of tort or contract cases where one party was clearly wronged and the other party was clearly at fault, but where the court will fashion a remedy that splits the difference in the name of harmony and brotherhood. In other words, within Zion justice is not a virtue that comes into play precisely because Zion is not a place where the conditions of justice obtain.

This means that Zion may not be a particularly useful idea for ordering political and legal relationships ordered by justice. Alternatively, it means that those interested in using Zion as a concept for ordering political and legal relationships are going to need to come up with ways of undermining the primacy of justice in such discussions.