Illustrating Mormonism is a Social Construct
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:
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.
Anyone have other good or perhaps better examples from Mormonism to illustrate that it is socially constructed or human-made?
Was your cousin OK with this response? Seems like the sort of thing a believer might find threatening (or even offensive).
No response yet. Since he was asking, I didn’t really pull punches. But, you’re right, I’m thinking he might have found it threatening.
Since he was asking a leading question, I’d wager he already knew the answer, and is seeking some trusted confirmation. I thought your response was well put (and thanks, btw); as he requested it was appropriately worded “given your education and background”. I didn’t find it threatening at all. Perhaps a bit eye-popping, for a first-time peek from outside the Mormon reality distortion field (no disrespect to Jobs).
Not being a sociologist, I can’t say for certain, but Hinkley’s obsession with the Hoffman forgeries (Salamander letter) might be a more recent and ongoing indicator that meets your social construction criteria.
Please follow up with your cousin’s response however. (And I do hope his sister is coping in *any* way possible. Poor girl.)
1) A relationship with deity, like a relationship with anyone else, is something that can only be “proven” through its effects. I personally feel that — like with gender identity and orientation — other people’s claims to have such relationships should not be considered subject to “science,” but accepted at face value, and then subjected to the same consideration as any other identity claim or relationship assertion that person could make.
2) It doesn’t matter whether God told Joseph Smith to do that or not, because a god that would is just as much of an abusive jerk as he was.
I agree with Taryn’s (1) @ 5. I think it’s very appropriate to include deities as actors in religious histories, rather than just make it all about the people. This is because for the people being studied, the deities are actors and have certain effects on the history. It’s a respect issue. For example, the 1978 LDS revelation to ordain black men can easily be explained in terms that don’t include God, but there’s a “violence” that gets done to Mormons when the story is told without including God as an actor.
I’m curious about the Emma/Joseph story. The section of the D&C you point to talks about Emma needing to be “faithful,” but casually leaves out the exact circumstances so that there’s no evidence of her not wanting to be part of a plural marriage. Then a few verses later, in verse 61, it’s made very clear that the first wife must give her consent if her husband wishes to marry another “virgin.” It’s almost like the gender dynamics of the church have been one long episode of justifying and covering up Joseph’s adultery…
Very good point. Given the question, this is probably the sort of answer he was looking for and expecting. Plus 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, here’s how we approach the subject of religion…).
Any claim about an observed phenomenon can be analyzed scientifically. If you’re not interested in performing this research yourself, nor interested in the results of it, fine — but you can hardly insist that other people avoid using their best tools to answer questions that interest them.
I’ll let everyone know if/when he responds.
RE #6: I don’t know that deities need to be “actors.” Why can’t they simply be constructed as “being seen as actors” by the real actors, rather than actors themselves?
This is a fascinating subject for me so I’m only making this comment becuase I can’t figure out how to subscribe to comments with out first making one.
I’m not Alan, so maybe I don’t really get what he’s trying to go for, but it seems that constructing deities as “being seen as actors by the real actors” is precisely part of the “violence” being done.
It makes a clear judgmental distinction between actors…there are the real actors and the cute (or maybe not so cute) delusions/constructions of real actors…it guarantees that you simply will not be able to appeal to the faithful, and you’ll probably piss them off whatever you say.
Much of your answer to your cousin seems to have that theme: that sociology of religion is opposed to religion as it is actually believed, and it’ll probably piss off actual religious believers. It seems you’re trying to relate a methodological skepticism and say that it’s not really as extreme as he might think, but it comes off as a bit more extreme than you might intend. For example, you say:
So, you say, “that doesn’t mean that sociologists also reject any notion of deity…” But essentially that’s exactly what you mean. Since the question has no evidence, it is not a scientific question…whereas “every religion shows substantial evidence of being constructed by humans for humans.”
This comes out in your examples with Mormonism:
So, as a sociologist, you already have a set conclusion: it is an obvious attempt by Joseph Smith to consolidate his power. (I think “obvious” has similar negative connotations as your previous use of “real” actors does. It really IS sticking it at religious believers.) From the sociologist perspective, it is irrelevant whether there was or was not an actual revelation…but from a religious perspective, it is intensively relevant whether there was or was not an actual revelation.
Here, you are stating that sociologists are by career opposed to faith. “Maybe that is what God wanted,” but the sociologist doesn’t see it that way. The sociologist must look for alternative explanations: that the “real” actors were pretending and constructing the not-real actors to get what they wanted.
What is it that you wanted your cousin to get from this email? What is he supposed to think after this? That you’re just trying to tear his religion down? Or that your career requires you to do such?
As uhonest pointed out @3, ProfXM’s cousin specifically asked about his perspective (as a sociologist) on religion as a man-made construct, and that’s the question ProfXM answered. Perhaps we can hold off on being offended on the cousin’s behalf until after we hear his reaction.
i’m not offended on the cousin’s behalf. I just don’t get people.
Maybe if you studied psychology or sociology… 😉
Consider this passage from Dipesh Chakrabarty who is a post-colonial thinker. It’s from his Provincializing Europe (2000, 16), where he lays out an important critique on the field of sociology of religion:
As I’m sure you know, the beginnings of the fields of sociology, anthropology, psychology, etc, were quite ugly. Peoples’ bodies and cultures were categorized on the basis of how “evolved” they were compared to Europeans and European culture, which thought of itself as “objective.” Personally, I think about a kind of violence that endures when people’s gods and spirits are objectified and made as non-actors for no reason other than to be “scientific.” This even includes God as Mormons understand Him, notwithstanding the injustices of the Church.
If I understand the logic of your letter, you suggest that religion has social effects, therefore it is a social construction, therefore Mormonism (or JS) is only about power and sex. And you’ve arrived at these normative conclusions on the basis of your professional work as a sociologist. Is that right?
The points made about “violence to gods” reminds me of an incident I had with Richard Bushman when his book “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling” came out. I was asked to review his book at a conference along with several other sociologists. The question we were asked to address was whether Rough Stone Rolling was sociology. The other two – an assistant professor and a full professor – both carefully worded their responses to basically say “no,” but in a polite way. I was a graduate student at the time and didn’t have their repertoire of flowery language to say “no, it’s not sociology” without actually saying it. So, instead, I just said, “No, Rough Stone Rolling is not sociology. And here’s why…”
What I said was that he accepts as factual Joseph Smith’s interactions with supernatural entities. Based on the pervious comments, I’m thinking Rough Stone Rolling would qualify as an example of “not doing violence to gods” because it is written as though the gods, angels, etc. actually exist(ed) and that Joseph Smith and others actually interacted with them.
As a sociologist examining the work of a historian, I couldn’t help but ask, “What did I learn from Rough Stone Rolling?” Most of what Bushman included in the book that was considered “controversial” was already known at the time he wrote the book. What the book did that was novel was write about the “warts” of Mormonism from a believer’s perspective. In short, he wrote about Mormon history as though all of the supernatural actors and events actually occurred.
As a sociologist, I fail to see the utility in that. It explains little to nothing about why events occurred the way they did. If “science” never did “violence to gods,” wouldn’t we still be saying things like, “Of course the earth is just 6,000 years old and god planted the dinosaurs in those strata just to mislead us.” If we didn’t offer alternative explanations to claimed supernatural events, explanations that are much more plausible IMO, then where would we be? Sociology wouldn’t really exist as a discipline. I would be writing from the equivalent perspective of a believing historian.
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. If I accepted as “face valid” the involvement of supernatural entities in historical events, how, exactly, would I include that as a variable in my models predicting future behavior?
Let me give a practical example from my own research. I have written several papers on Mormon growth. The goal of my research on that topic has been to explain Mormon growth. But I do not, in my research, use as an explanation: “It is god’s will that Mormonism grow.” How does that tell us anything useful? If Mormonism stops growing, which in many countries it basically has, do I then say, “It is god’s will that Mormonism not grow.”? Again, how have I contributed anything useful to this question if I take the “don’t do violence to gods” approach?
Instead, as a sociologist, I look for explanations that do not involve the supernatural, precisely because they can be measured. “Natural” variables compellingly explain Mormon growth without involving the supernatural. Does that mean there is no supernatural influence? That’s a moot question. I can’t answer that question because, by definition, there is no way to measure the supernatural.
If the question is: “Does sociology basically work under the assumption that there is no supernatural influence?” The answer is basically “Yes.” That doesn’t mean we can’t say things like, “Person X did Y because he believes in god Z.” Of course we can say that. But why I must I then say, “And Z, of course, exists.”?
We can debate the merits of that approach, but I fail to see how Richard Bushman’s “non-violence toward gods” approach does anything useful in explaining history. It is not an explanation; it is a perspective. I’m a sociologist. I don’t JUST describe. I explain so I can predict.
That religion has social effects does not mean it is a social construction. It is a social construction because it only exists due to a “social” or shared belief that it exists.
As far as Mormonism goes, the social constructionist perspective allows me to unpack historical events without reliance on a supernatural entity. That doesn’t mean Mormonism is only about power and sex. I never said that. What I said is that, just because Joseph Smith claimed to have received revelations from a god doesn’t mean he actually did. By removing the supernatural element from the equation we can see factors that very likely motivated his actions: Hiram Page’s threat to his authority and Emma’s anger over polygamy.
If I accepted as factual that Joseph Smith was simply receiving revelations from god, why would I bother to look for alternative explanations? I’d simply accept that what he “revealed” was god’s will. The social constructionist perspective removes the supernatural baggage and allows me to contextualize what occurred, looking for explanations that are not supernatural in origin.
So, your summation of my statement was wrong in pretty much every way it could be. Religion is not a social construction because it has social effects. Mormonism is not only about power and sex. And I arrived at those conclusions based on the assumption that religion is a social construction, which is a theoretical understanding of social institutions deriving from the philosophy of knowledge and the sociology of knowledge, not exclusive to sociology.
For many years, people attempted to use science to bolster their racial prejudices. The reason this attempt eventually failed is not because people somehow outgrew science or decided it was a bad tool. It’s because — through using the tools of science — people found that those ancient prejudices (about racial distinctions and racial superiority) were wrong.
I agree, but in matters of relationship and identity the only one who can do any objective testing is the person who has the relationship or identity. You can look for a neurochemical basis, but if a physical test says someone is straight and she reports that she’s lesbian, the test is in error.
Since first-hand accounts are literally the only thing to go on here, they have to be given credence. Saying that Joseph Smith’s god didn’t tell him to do something, when Smith reports that he did, is like using weasel words to describe a transperson’s gender identity just because you’re uncomfortable with it. It says more about you than him.
Smith’s god should be viewed in the same way as a person who did what Smith attributed to him: As an habitual liar and enabler, who said a ton of things that were mean, convenient (for Smith), and went against verifiable fact.
I would also point out that the attempt to use “science” to bolster one’s prejudices continues, and is basically the whole reason for “evolutionary psychology” as near as I can tell. 😛 If it’s failed to any extent it’s because people are self-correcting, and applying the scientific method (to verifiable facts and to identity- or relationship-based Unverified Personal Gnosis) is one way they do so.
So are listening to and trying to understand others’ accounts of their feelings and experiences.
Taryn, how is that useful? If all you’re going to do is add another character who represents all of the horrible qualities of Joseph Smith, why not just attribute those qualities to Smith himself? Yes, this ASSUMES that Smith was just making it all up. But it also reduces the level of complexity of the analysis dramatically.
I can do an okay job predicting what an asshole (Smith) would do. I’m pretty terrible at predicting what the projection of Smith as a supernatural entity that also happens to be an asshole (god) would do. Why not deal with the former rather than the former and the latter?
Plus, by leaving god out, what we get is a more complete picture of Smith as a fraud. With god out of the picture, Smith can’t blame is horrific treatment of Emma on god any more than OJ Simpson could blame god for his wife’s death.
Perhaps it is possible to distinguish between verifiable facts and reported experiences in a way that does not do violence to the persons reporting them.
When Smith claims something that conflicts with verifiable fact, the facts should be used to discredit him (and his god if he was involved). But just writing it off in an “everyone knows it’s his imaginary friend” way is the equivalent of writing off a transwoman’s gender identity in an “everyone knows he’s a guy” way. It says nothing about the facts, but explains the observer’s prejudices.
Smith’s the one who dragged his god into this, and attributed factually disprovable (and objectively mean) statements to him. 😛 Just analyze Smith’s statements and actions, since they’re the only ones you can directly observe. There’s no need to drop in a “by the way, everyone knows that his god isn’t real” as though that makes things more scientific.
@23 I don’t think it’s a question of “everyone knows X” so much as it is a question of examining other possible explanations.
An alternate example that jumps out at me (since Alan mentioned colonialism and racism) is found in the book I’m currently reading, Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” The basic question of the book is to examine why some cultures had the technology to colonize each other — and specifically to question the popular prejudice that it was due to racial difference.
Diamond says, let’s cast that common racist hypothesis aside for the moment and look at other possible causes — in much the same way that ProfXM says: OK, let’s look at other explanations, aside from the face-valid claim that supernatural forces were at work.
I think you have a good point. I’m just wondering if they are equivalent.
The question, I guess, is:
Does “belief in supernatural entity = identification as other sex”?
There is no known way to verify either the existence of a supernatural entity or whether or not someone really believes in such an entity. Even brain scans cannot validate belief in such an entity perfectly as beliefs in the supernatural will simply register like other beliefs (though there may be some variation there; I don’t know enough about it to say).
On the other hand, there is some data suggesting that we can verify homosexuality independently (I know, this is about transgender, just thinking…). I’m thinking of the studies that find that gay men find smells sexy while straight men don’t (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2005/05/0510_050510_gayscent.html). That seems to suggest a “more” objective criteria for validation. Transgender is difficult because it involves a biological male who is potentially (though not necessarily) attracted to males (or female to females) but also feels like (s)he is a female. Would similar smell tests provide objective evidence of her identity? Don’t know. Just wondering…
At present, I think I generally agree that neither are 100% verifiable. But I’m wondering if we could eventually find objective evidence to support transgender identities. The same is unlikely to be the case for belief in god.
I do like your last sentence though – observer’s prejudices is a good point. I don’t have a good response to that other than to say that I am somewhat limited by the tools I have at my disposal. I can use self-reported belief in god to predict other beliefs and behaviors, but that doesn’t mean I accept that people’s gods are real. If there was a way to verify it, I would use it.
Also, it occurs to me that courts of law don’t recognize the existence of gods today either. No one gets off in a court of law by saying, “God told me to rape and kill all those women and children.” Is that, too, doing “damage to the gods”?
What difference does it make?
Verifiable facts can be used to discredit Smith’s statements about Book of Mormon geography and history. But there are no verifiable facts that can discredit anyone’s claimed relationships with their gods. This isn’t a matter of “facts versus the supernatural,” it’s a matter of having respect for others’ relationships and identities.
A sociologist can point out how Smith’s god conveniently wanted everything that Smith did without working in a subtext of “everyone’s claims to their religious experiences are invalid.”
Again, what difference does it make? Smith’s cult members bought the “god told me to do it” defense, but I personally don’t care if there was video footage of the angel with the flaming sword. It was evil and wrong, and he doesn’t get a free pass by blaming it on anyone.
I don’t have links available, but my understanding is that there are the beginnings of an understanding of a biological basis for transsexuality and spirituality in place. As with other prejudices, though, I personally don’t feel that anyone not already swayed by the accounts of those who go through these things will see anything in the evidence besides “this proves Those People are messed up.”
… actually I correct myself. If there was video footage, it might show that he had been coerced. It’s the fact that there isn’t any evidence that he was coerced that makes that an invalid defense. (And the fact that it’s a crappy thing to tell someone to do that makes Smith’s god a crappy one.)
Taryn Fox — I’m getting a vibe from you that you’re suspicious of science because science seems to insist that your “real” gender is determined by your genes or by the physical result of them. But I would point out that science points to recognizing the cultural component of gender (while exploring the question of why gender identity and gender genetics don’t always match). Note: Saying that something is constructed by human culture isn’t the same as saying that it’s not real — the English language is a product of human culture, and created through human (genetic or biological) potential, and it is quite real.
Science isn’t about declaring someone’s gender identity wrong, but rather it expresses curiosity about how our gender assumptions work.
I’m not “suspicious of science,” and I am already aware of the things that you’re saying (although I feel that people express curiosity, and use the scientific method as one tool for satisfying it). I’m suspicious of people who look to anything for reasons to invalidate others’ identities and personal experiences.
In the courtroom example, for instance, the implication is that we should throw out “god told me to do it” because everyone knows that there is no god. But doing so does violence to people who feel that their prayers are answered, and whose spiritual experiences are vital to their well-being. It tells these people that they and their experiences are invalid, independent of what those experiences even are.
The real reason that’s not a valid defense is because it’s like pointing out to your girlfriend and saying “she told me to do it.” Unless there’s evidence that you were coerced, you haven’t come up with the perfect defense; you’ve confessed to the crime, and implicated someone else in the process. Smith’s followers may feel that his god is allowed to tell him to do stuff like that, but that just speaks to what kind of people they are.
That defense is also equivalent to saying “I raped him because I’m gay.” The defense can be invalid without the identity being invalidated.
No one here has suggested that science is about invalidating someone else’s identity — quite the opposite.
We may both be speaking past each other and making assumptions, then. If so, I apologize for the confusion.
I am not accusing “science” of being a tool of invalidation. I am saying that … ignoring a person’s account of their relationship with a god, and looking for the “real reasons” why he or she does something, is morally equivalent to saying that gays and transpeople don’t really exist and trying to figure out why they’re such perverts. Unless and until they make claims that are disprovable, it’s not about “facts versus faith.” It’s about having respect for others’ self-concepts and personal needs.
The only reason to be skeptical of Joseph Smith’s claiming god told him to do these things is the same reason to be skeptical of his saying anything else: He’s a con man and a liar.
It doesn’t make sociological analysis more “complicated” to show respect for other people. The original analysis complicates things by imposing an unverifiable personal credulity bias onto the historical accounts. It’s the atheist equivalent of an evangelical ministry’s editorializing about how Smith must have consorted with demons; all that it adds is a sidebar about what the author believes.
Not keeping gods and spirits as actors is not doing “violence to the gods.” It’s doing violence to the people who assert those gods as real. As Taryn has been saying, it’s not so much a question of the gods, as it is a question of telling a story that’s not necessarily your story to tell. If I want to tell someone else’s story, or expand on it in some way, then I should have the courtesy to include all the characters, rather than leaving out those I find to be stupid, offensive or intangible.
Just let your listeners judge accordingly. I would hope that if you’re talking about Mormons, then some of your listeners are Mormon. Otherwise, you’re talking behind people’s back, and that’s where the violence comes in — particularly in the academy, where people are “studied,” even though those people often have no input in how the study is carried out. If you’re talking about something like the “growth of the Church,” there’s a good chance God won’t even come up. God doesn’t arise in every Mormon conversation.
Just as Taryn said, if you leave in the detail about God commanding Emma to be faithful regardless of being cheated upon, then a conclusion people might draw is, “Wow, the Mormon God is an a******. No wonder I’m not Mormon.”
I think when it comes to sociology of religion as a field, it isn’t a matter of becoming like Richard Bushman, believers ourselves. There are simple things that can be done. For example, here’s a sentence from my Dialogue article:
Notice how the deities just sit in there as actors, rather than me saying, “Well, Mormons believe that this is the way it should be done because that’s what they think their gods think.” This doesn’t mean that because I’ve made HF and HM as actors, that the story is over and I must draw the conclusions church leaders and much of the membership has drawn. No, in every faith community, there’s a relationship between human beings and their gods/spirits (which usually includes fallibility in the humans, though sometimes also the gods), and I work within the bounds of these relationships to make the points I want to make.
I was trained in cultural studies, not sociology. One of the big rules of the field is that a study be “of the people, for the people, by the people.” That doesn’t mean only believing Mormons can study Mormons or affect Mormonism. But every culture has insider/outsider rules, and one of the rules I see for Mormons is that God is an actor in the world. If I wanted to fight that rule, then I would go research someone else, because I’d feel like I was bringing too much of my own personal bias into the study.
Can’t say I’m following the conversation, but if I mistranslate by borrowing from bad horror and dark fantasy book, then I wind up with something like this
If I am a underfunded game warden in the Sierra Nevada and someone wanders in claiming that while out hiking in a remote valley they came across a bunch of Dragons-Gods plotting with orcs and trolls to overrun California, how much resources must I divert to have an investigation so as not to do “violence”.
And how much “violence” will occur because I failed to do game surveys, because I was off chasing orcs.
I agree, and I think you do a good job of showing the respect an outsider can give to the people who hold those beliefs while still being critical of some of the beliefs themselves.
Also of showing how much less clumsy it is to phrase things that way.
More like … if a transgender person defrauds someone by switching her appearance in order to gain their confidence, it’s possible to write about it without using sexist or transphobic language, or implying that “of course she’s really a guy.”
We’re advocating for the acceptance of people’s needs and identities as valid (“I am gay”), not the unquestioned acceptance of falsifiable truth claims based on those identities (“I’m so gay I can make straight guys fall in love with me”). You’re missing the point entirely.
Not surprising I’m missing the point, but I don’t find yours applicable.
If the discussion was on who or who not gets to call themselves Mormon, it makes sense to me.
But it looks like to me the objection is over not showing obeisance to that which cannot be scientifically verified.
I don’t know whether or not those Heaven Gate’s folks really hitched a ride on that spaceship hiding behind that comet, but I think it’s a disservice to living humans to accept at face value that the Heaven’s Gate folks are on an real life away mission.
And while a relationship with a fictional character may or may not provide value to a person, I see no need to accept at face value that fictional character as tangible reality.
And I personally feel that in no way is a imaginary relationship with an imaginary spouse on par with a real relationship with a real spouse.(it ain’t about effect) And that having an imaginary spouse who I interact with, could do real violence to my marriage.
My claims to an imaginary spouse should not be shown consideration. And to those who value “showing respect”, it is the ultimate disrespect to my marriage to advocate( in the name of self acceptance and personal need) for acceptance to an imaginary one.
Thanks for clarifying. I disagree with your equivalence.
I’m not talking about “ignoring a persons account of their relationship with a god” or of negating their subjective experience. I’m saying it shouldn’t be off limits to analyze someone’s interpretation of their subjective experience. If you say “I felt X emotion because gays are perverts / blacks are lazy / I died and went to heaven and came back / etc.,” I’m not going to say anything about your subjective experience because I’m not in your head with you. However, the spirit of scientific inquiry may make me wonder if there aren’t other possible explanations for the subjective experience you describe.
This has nothing to do with whether gay and trans people exist. Obviously they exist — there are some participating in this discussion right now. Science isn’t about deciding your “real” gender for you — that’s more a question of how you define terms like “male”, “female”, “gender”, etc. The scientific method isn’t about deciding the true, canonical definitions of terms. Terms are defined by mutual agreement.
Once you’ve defined your terms, it’s certainly possible to ask why, say, some people with both an X chromosome and a Y chromosome feel comfortable self-identifying as “male” and some don’t. Is there something going on biologically that we can measure?
Asking such questions about the human conditions is not even remotely equivalent to calling people perverts nor does it imply passing judgement that there’s something wrong with transgender people.
I’m not sure how you get from a methodology that studies religion, including the adherent’s conception of a supreme being, as a natural phenomenon, to a position that says that methodology demands that a person’s expressed preference, sexual, or otherwise has to be necessarily interpreted as a social construct. Proxfm wasn’t saying that, and certainly the assumptions and methodology that he was describing doesn’t demand it.
@proxfm- I am sure that religion functions to consolidate power, but have all religions evolved in the same way? I have not studied religion the way you have, but in your studies have you seen examples of religion merely acting as a mechanism for handing down cultural values? or as a simple social glue?
Also, evolutionary psychologists have been studying religion; I have added the page of a researcher delving into individuals and religion. http://psychweb.uoregon.edu/people/shariff-azim
I don’t think all religions have evolved exactly the same way, but the general pressures pushing them to evolve I think are universal (in pluralistic societies).
In a paper I published on this building on Armand Mauss’s work, I argued that religions are like corporations (this is more accurate in pluralistic societies; less so in monopolistic societies): they try to balance between niche appeal (targeting specific “consumers”) and broad-level legitimacy (being consonant with societal values). Since what consumers want changes over time, religions must also change.
A good example of this is the change in policy towards blacks in 1978 by the LDS Church. I am, once again, going to do “damage to those claiming gods exist,” but the primary explanation for why the policy changed when it did was external pressures combined with internal pressures. There was increasing pressure from those outside the religion to change this policy (e.g., universities refusing to play against BYU in sports; critics; etc.). And within the religion there were people converting or interested in converting who were black, particularly in Africa and Brazil, as well as a prophet who was not a racist (followed by one who was).
The external pressure was an issue of legitimacy: the LDS Church was no longer seen as consonant with broader societal values because values in society had changed. It was no longer “okay” to be racist. If the LDS Church hadn’t changed this policy, it is likely it would have been increasingly marginalized as it would have only had “niche appeal” to those who remain racists (not unlike Mormon fundamentalists, who didn’t change this policy). Thus, because society changes, religions must change with them or risk becoming illegitimate and completely irrelevant. There are religions that cater exclusively to small niches, but they will never grow large precisely because they are illegitimate (e.g., Mormon fundamentalists).
So, I would argue that the forces that drive the evolution of religions – again, in pluralistic societies – are largely true for all religions. However, how religions choose to respond to those forces may vary. A similar perspective on this is taken by Mark Chaves when he examines ordination of women in religion in the U.S.
As far as religion serving as a mechanism for handing down cultural values, that is, at least in part, the interpretation Emile Durkheim had of religion. He saw religion as a reflection of the society in which it existed and believed that it was basically the equivalent of raising the structure of society – including the cultural values and norms – up to the status of being sacred. I’m not sure that is perfectly true, but there is a lot of merit in thinking about religions that way.
I’m familiar with Azim Shariff’s work. He and Gervais and Norenzayaan are doing some really cool stuff!
And yet the 1978 change in the policy in the Church could not have happened without a revelation. The revelation is part of the Mormon process, not a full explanation in and of itself. Just as the economics is not a full explanation in and of itself. What’s wrong with setting the economic factors alongside the theological ones? If anything, digging for where the economic and the theological meet (by gathering archives from, say, church leaders overseas reporting back to SLC about the need for priests) would make for a richer, more insightful history. If you just speak past people, and make grand claims that leave out what and who Mormons themselves think is important (e.g, God), then I still see a kind of violence going on. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with the Church at all. You just have to make a study about Mormons readable and non-offensive to Mormon themselves. Sorry to be pedantic on this point (and maybe you don’t agree with this point?).
ProfXM answered this @17, starting from around paragraph 5.
You seem to be assuming a different set of goals and objectives for ProfXM than the goals he stated for his own work:
Alan @42 — I’m not going to say that we have a policy at MSP against editing comments because as far as I know, we don’t. But since your change @42 was in response to my comment @43, I think the thread of discussion would be less confusing for others if you had posted a new comment, rather than editing.
I mean, I don’t think we have a policy against editing one’s own comments. (We do have a policy against people editing other people’s comments.)
chanson, I don’t recall editing @42 — certainly not after you posted @43 (I’ve been away from the computer since I posted @42).
Perhaps when profxm utters the phrase “I am a sociologist of religion,” that implies for him methodological atheism. But I’m quite certain that in his field there are critiques of the ethical limits of that methodology. For example, if a religious person had to do scholarship as if he were an atheist, that would mean he would have to falsify the data of his own experience which, as far as I know, is not proper scientific conduct. So, is it the case that religious folks cannot be part of a field called “sociology of religion?” That would be ironic, given the name of the field.
What about young earth creationist working as a geologist? Would he or she have to do science without God doing whatever and falsify the truth of their spiritual witness?
Or how ’bout a Christian Scientist working as a medical doctor? It seems perhaps that these religious folks cannot be part of all sorts of scientific fields. That would be ironic, given the name of their religion.
@46 Sorry for jumping to conclusions. It looked different after I refreshed, but it may have been my mistake.
Anyway, when I say “You seem to be assuming a different set of goals and objectives for ProfXM than the goals he stated for his own work,” here’s what I mean. You say:
I ask: Why? Doesn’t that depend on what you’re trying to accomplish with your study?
Suzanne@47: Indeed, some fields are inherently offensive to some religions (another example might be how a scientologist wouldn’t become a psychiatrist). But I don’t see why a field about the study of religion should need to inherently be offensive to religious people.
Give me an example of a study about gay people that needs to inherently be condescending or offensive to gay people. Or a study about women that inherently needs to disrespect women. Or a study about people of color whose methodology is racist. There are basic ethical rules when writing about people. (And the question of “readability” can also be one of “accessibility.”)
It’s easy to imagine a group of people taking offense to any study of themselves not done by someone in that group. That would point to a need to co-investigate. Mormons, on the other hand, are okay with not everyone writing about them being Mormon. But I’m pretty sure they take offense when their God is written out of the picture in instances they think He should be there (again, not every study about Mormons requires God to be an actor).
It’s possible for an aspect of a religion’s history to be buried by the religion and its uncovering being offensive if not done correctly. For example, there’s a lot of ways that scholars use early church history to embarrass Mormons. Historical revisionism is often a violent process done for political gain, but I see no reason to heap additional violence onto “innocents,” as it were.
If the goal is to change the Church due to an internal injustice, because one sees both “innocents” and “villains” in the Church, then that’s all the more reason not to offend Mormons in your study.
So what’s a psychology professor to do when a scientologist enrolls in psych 101 or maybe “The Psychology of Religion”?
As for including members of a group in the group being studied (and I mean this in a friendly way and not to bring up old arguments) does this include Mormon lesbians?
Based on my limited experience, being assertive isn’t a virtue for most Mormon women. 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 don’t offend the hierarchy or culture.
Or to engage in a bit of historical revisionism, I wonder if the Inquisitors would be offended if, when considering all those lovely ladies who were burned at the stake because they flew out at night on brooms to attend orgies and have sexual congress with Satan, if the actual existence of the Devil wasn’t front and center.