Illustrating Mormonism is a Social Construct

Mormons

A cousin recently sent me a message via Facebook. I’m guessing it was related to his sister giving birth to a badly deformed child that died within about four hours, but he didn’t mention that. Anyway, here’s his message and the questions it contained:

Hi [ProfXM]. I hope you are well. I’ve had the chance to read some of your writings. Very interesting. Given your education and background, I have a question for you. (There is no underlying motive here. ) Do you feel that “religion” (if that word can be defined adequately) has been created by man as a coping mechanism?

Some of my professional work was recently in the press in Utah and was spotted by several family members. I’m guessing that is how he is familiar with the work I do. Regardless, I thought I should answer his question since this is a question I answer in my classes where I teach. Here’s my response:

Hi [Cousin],

I’m happy to don my “Sociologist of Religion” cap and answer that question.

Within the sociology of religion there is no question that religion is human-made. We call it a “social construction.” What that means is that religion only exists because humans collectively agree to pretend that it exists.

It may be helpful to compare it with something like “government.” We all agree that “government” exists, but when we are forced to think about it, government only exists as an idea. You can’t touch government. Buildings (e.g., courthouses, state capitols, etc.) are not government. People (e.g., judges, lawyers, lawmakers, etc.) are not government. Government is an idea that humans share. It only exists because you and I and everyone else agree that it exists. And it has obviously been called into question at times when people have revolted and overthrown governments.

Religion is the same. Religion is not the buildings (e.g., churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, etc.). Religion is not the people (e.g., prophets, pastors, priests, bishops, etc.). Religion is an idea. If we stopped believing in religion, religion would cease to exist. It is just an idea.

That is the standard way of thinking about religion in the sociology of religion. That doesn’t mean that sociologists also reject any notion of a deity or other supernatural influence on religion; that is a question that has no evidence and is therefore not a scientific question. But every religion shows substantial evidence of being constructed by humans for humans.

Maybe some specific examples would help illustrate this. I’ll use Mormonism since we are both familiar with it.

First example. In 1830, Hiram Page, one of the Eight Witnesses of the Book of Mormon, began receiving revelations through a “peepstone” or “seer stone,” like what Joseph Smith Jr. used to translate the Book of Mormon (and for various other activities). Because Joseph Smith was in the process of consolidating his authority and power as the leader of his new religion, he immediately received a “revelation” saying that Hiram Page’s revelations were from the devil. This is detailed in Section 28:11-16 of the Doctrine and Covenants. As a sociologist, I see this as an obvious attempt by Joseph Smith to consolidate his power and remove a threat to his authority. In other words, whether or not there was an actual revelation, this event can be interpreted from a “social constructionist” perspective to suggest that Joseph Smith was doing something pragmatic – defending his authority by “receiving a revelation” that defended his authority.

Another good example also comes from the Doctrine & Covenants. Section 132 is dated from 1843, less than a year before Joseph Smith’s death. He had been practicing polygamy for somewhere around 7 years at this point. His wife, Emma, found out about it and was furious (part of the reason she didn’t follow Brigham Young after the split in 1844). In Section 132, Joseph Smith uses his ability to receive “revelations” to reprimand her (see verses 51-57). He basically tells her, through revelation, to shut up about the polygamy and accept that he is having affairs with multiple women. And, if she doesn’t, she will “be destroyed.” You and I have been married and had wives. It’s not hard at all to see through such a “revelation” and realize what is happening here: Joseph Smith is using his “authority” to cover his philandering.

Again, in neither of the above examples can we say definitively that God was not speaking with Joseph Smith and telling him to say or do these things. But a social constructionist looks at these and sees someone clearly abusing his authority to get what he wants: consolidated power and an obedient wife who accepts his adultery. Maybe that is what God wanted. But the sociologist doesn’t see it that way. The sociologist puts these events into their context and looks for alternative explanations. The simplest explanation here is that Joseph Smith was pretending to receive revelation to get what he wanted, not that god wanted him to do these things.

I could give more examples, but hopefully those help illustrate the sociological perspective on religion.

As far as whether religion was created just to help people as a coping mechanism, there is some question about that. Certainly it functions as a coping mechanism for many people, but there is a lot of current debate as to why religion sprang into “existence” among humans that goes beyond just a coping mechanism. I could go into some of the details of that debate if you’d like me to.

I hope this helps.

Best,

[ProfXM]

Anyone have other good or perhaps better examples from Mormonism to illustrate that it is socially constructed or human-made?

56 thoughts on “Illustrating Mormonism is a Social Construct

  1. A Mormon woman who is not quiet about having an opinion is offensive. And I think that it compounds the harm done to loud, obnoxious women, by heaping additional violence on them by insisting on their silence so they dont offend the hierarchy or culture.

    I never insisted on silence. What I insisted on is that the strategies of quiet women be considered as on par with the strategies of loud women. But instead, I (and another) was told that, actually, loudness for a woman is the way to go about it, so therefore, we needed to shut up or else we were telling loud women to be silent.

  2. If the goal is to change the Church due to an internal injustice, because one sees both innocents and villains in the Church, then thats all the more reason not to offend Mormons in your study.

    OK, but “to change the Church due to an internal injustice” was not the goal of ProfXM’s study. Here’s what he said about his research:

    I have written several papers on Mormon growth. The goal of my research on that topic has been to explain Mormon growth.

    Note that his goal has nothing to do with changing the church nor with offending/not offending Mormons. @42 you also offered strategies for writing a “richer, more insightful history,” but I’m not sure that’s his goal either (he’s in Sociology, not History).

    I remember reading the reactions in the Mormon-interest press and blogosphere the last time one of ProfXM’s studies was published (quite recently, as mentioned in the OP). None of the Mormons seemed at all offended by the study — indeed as far as I saw, nobody expected (or even suggested) that he should have included divine intervention in his study.

  3. Alan
    Okay. But I believe my question was when considering Mormon lesbians, should Mormon lesbians be included?

    I wonder how workers, after decades of silence to their exploitation,who finally unionized and found their voice and started achieving better working conditions, would react to someone telling them to consider consider the strategy of being quiet and working harder.
    What’s worked well for some low wage workers is to grovel at the feet of management and to roll over on their back like a dog. Cuz, sometimes you get your tummy rubbed.

    I remember my grandmother and her sisters, who in private complained about the Relief Society being unautonomized. But they were good women (and well versed in the rule that silence was golden) and quietly worked with Church leaders. And now forty years later, Relief Society is ever so much better.
    And of course, don’t say anything different, because the Sisters might be offended.
    I wonder if the Hierarchy considered the Sisters and their delicate sensibilities when the Relief Society were being correlated.

    And what this has to do with coping mechanisms and social constructs, darned if I know.

  4. chanson,
    @1, you said: “Seems like the sort of thing a believer might find threatening (or even offensive”

    @7 — as what seems like an excuse for this possibly threatening or offensive behavior — you said: “I think you (ProfXM) did a good job of qualifying your statements (i.e. People can interpret these events in different ways, but in sociology, heres how we approach the subject of religion”

    Now, you’re saying @52 that profxm’s work as a sociologist isn’t about offending/not offending believers; it’s about Mormon growth, and no one said God needed to be in his studies.

    This raises for me the following points of contention:

    (1) Threatening/offensive behavior is not okay, even if it’s in the name of “science” or whatever discipline,
    (2) The sociology of religion does not inherently have to use methodological atheism and threaten/offend believers; there are, in fact, critiques of that methodology due to the offense it causes to the people being studied,
    (3) I was never responding to profxm’s studies about growth in the Church, but to the OP. I said above (@34, para. 2) that a topic such as growth in the Church probably wouldn’t require mentioning God. But potentially threatening/offensive aspects in the OP do have something to do with the divine.

    I understand that this was a conversation between profxm and his cousin, and the cousin asked a “leading question” and was likely not particularly offended. But I’m speaking more about potentialities within the discipline of sociology of religion than this specific situation.

    Suzanne,
    I’m not interested in rehashing that old discussion. I feel like there’s too much there I’d get emotional about that’s never been resolved nor do I suspect will get resolved on this forum. Maybe you’re interested in writing a post about Mormon lesbian politics/theology?

  5. Alan, you’re confusing ProfXM’s letter with his published scientific research.

    He stated the goals of his research:

    Sociologists are in the business of understanding social life. And I happen to be of the view (which is debated in the discipline) that our aim in understanding is to predict.

    I have written several papers on Mormon growth. The goal of my research on that topic has been to explain Mormon growth.

    The published scientific studies he mentions are, in fact, not offensive to Mormons in general. However, whether people are or are not offended by the studies is not not relevant to the objectives of the studies.

    The goal of ProfXM’s letter, presumably, was to answer his cousin’s question. Some believers might find the letter offensive (for example, if he were mailing it to believing relatives spontaneously). However, as was pointed out @3, the answer is appropriate to the question that was asked, hence likely not offensive to its recipient.

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