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Is Mormonism in Decline?

July 13, 2014     Time: 17:43
Is Mormonism in Decline?


Some reports say Mormons are leaving their church in record numbers! But Dr. Craig gets to the heart of the matter!

Transcript Is Mormonism in Decline?


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, our Mormon friends would probably be very interested in today's podcast. Many Mormons would be aware that there are reports that Mormons are leaving the LDS Church in record numbers. Let's talk a little bit about this today. We're looking at a blog from Defend magazine.[1] James Walker, who is president of Watchman Fellowship, has done a lot of research on Mormonism. He is studying why there are these reports that there really is a trend of Mormons leaving the LDS Church. He quotes Reuters and he does his research here.

Why are Mormons leaving the church “in droves?” The surprising question was posed to Elder Marlin K. Jensen, church historian and recorder for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The answer may be equally surprising.

James K. Walker, president of Watchman Fellowship, an independent Christian research and apologetics ministry focusing on new religious movements . . . addressed the question of why Mormons disbelieve.

While the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (LDS) took 117 years from its founding to reach its first 1 million members, growth in the 20th century and beyond is said to be closer to one million added worldwide every three years, Walker said. In the 1980s, author and historian Rodney Stark predicted that the LDS church could reach world religion status if the growth rate continued.

Then something changed.

“Something went very badly wrong on the road to world domination,” Walker said.

A Jan. 31, 2012 Reuters special report, “Mormonism besieged by the modern age,” reported on Jensen’s unscripted, candid remarks to the question posed above that were recorded while speaking at a small gathering at Utah State University.

Reporters Peter Henderson and Kristina Cooke wrote this[2]:

Did the leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints know that members are “leaving in droves?” a woman asked.

“We are aware,” said Jensen, according to a tape recording of his unscripted remarks. “And I’m speaking of the 15 men that are above me in the hierarchy of the church. They really do know and they really care,” he said.

“My own daughter,” he then added, “has come to me and said, ‘Dad, why didn’t you ever tell me that Joseph Smith was a polygamist?’”

The reporters note the “rising tide of questions” from church members about issues regarding the Book of Mormon and the historical problems that have been “largely glossed over” by Mormon leaders.

Walker pointed out that Jensen placed blame on the internet. The article reported this: “For the younger generation, Jensen acknowledged, ‘Everything’s out there for them to consume if they want to Google it.’”

Bill, I tell you, there are so many things on Mormonism and on all religions and worldviews; if you want to research it you'll get it. But what is very embarrassing to many Mormons is that things that are very sacred to them and have always been done very secretively are now all over YouTube. The baptismal ceremonies that they do, the baptism for the dead, the Mormon marriages, the garb that they wear, Mormon underwear, and all these things. People have sneaked in cell phones and video cams. Now it is just splashed all over YouTube. A lot of people go, “Boy, that is strange.” So in one sense the Internet may be responsible for some things but one can only speculate why Mormons are leaving the church.

Dr. Craig: Yes, it is a matter of speculation. I wonder to what extent this is reflecting a larger trend in American culture away from identifying with any sort of particular church and in favor of not having a religious affiliation. We talked about this before with respect to other standard Christian denominations. But in this case we have here a non-Christian movement which is apparently in the United States experiencing similar struggles to maintain its growth rate and its numbers. So it makes me wonder to what extent this is not peculiar to the Mormon church or the Mormon theology but reflects this sort of increased secularization and anti-denominationalism that the New Atheism has helped to promote in Western society.[3]

It is interesting in the article there were a couple of points at which I noticed parallels to things that you and I have talked about in our podcasts. For example, the rising tide of questions from church members about issues and historical problems that it says have been largely glossed over by the Mormon leaders. This fellow's own daughter said, “Why didn't you ever tell me that Joseph Smith was a polygamist?” That reminds me of the podcast we recently did where one of the reasons that people identify as being disaffected with church is because the church is over-protective and doesn't expose them to the challenges and the problems and so they feel the wool has been pulled over their eyes. That was a point of contact. Then, as you say, the Internet – we've talked about that as well. The secularists and the infidel websites are everywhere on the Internet and it has become a tremendous tool for anti-Christian polemics. We as Christians need to be equally adept in our use of the Internet in order to get out the defenses of the truth and to counteract these. But it makes me wonder to what extent the Mormon Church in the United States might not be experiencing these same problems of attrition that seem to be afflicting other denominations.

Kevin Harris: The article continues:

As to the solution of the internet problem and disaffected Mormons, the article said this:

With defections rising, the church has launched a program to staunch its losses. The head of the church, President Thomas Monson, who is considered a living prophet, has called the campaign “The Rescue” and made it his signature initiative, according to Jensen…. “The church has a very progressive research and information division, with tremendous public opinion surveyors,” he said. Among other steps, it has hired an expert in search-engine optimization to raise the profile of the church’s own views in a web search.

The solution is to launch a public relations endeavor, Walker pointed out.

“It’s all about trying to develop spin. It’s all about trying to do surveys to find out what people think. This is the work of a public relations office,” Walker said. “It’s not about setting the record straight. It’s not about becoming honest and setting the record straight about the past.”

. . .

“It looks to me as an outsider, and I’m speculating here, that apologetics and defending the faith is not part of ‘The Rescue’ plan,” Walker said.

Dr. Craig: Yes. Now that is said as an outsider. I must say that it did seem odd to me that Elder Jensen would characterize this initiative as having tremendous public opinion surveyors. When I read that I thought what does that have to do with promoting the Mormon worldview or doctrine? It does make you wonder whether Walker might not be right here that this is simply an attempt to mount a more effective public relations campaign than to really address the intellectual problems that beset Mormonism as a system.

Kevin Harris:

The [American Religious Identification Survey] concluded that the number of converts to Mormonism is about equal to the number leaving. The church is “treading water,” the report said.

Dr. Craig: Notice, Kevin, that that is an American Religious Identification Survey. That would at most show that the American LDS Church is now not growing – it has a zero growth rate. It is losing as many members as it is gaining. But that wouldn't do anything – to go back to the beginning of the article – to suggest that worldwide growth in the Mormon church has now ceased. You remember Rodney Stark's prediction that you quoted that Mormonism is on the way to world religion status if it continues to grow worldwide. One would like to know how is the growth in Latin America? In Africa? It may well be the case that we still are observing the emergence of the newest non-Christian world religion before our very eyes in Mormonism even if in the country of its founding, the United States, Mormonism has now become moribund. So I think the data that they cite doesn't support their claim that everything has changed and that the worldwide Mormon church still isn't on its way to world religion status.[4]

Kevin Harris: I am not surprised of this observation that apologetics and defending the Mormon church is not a part of this Rescue Plan. Not to say there aren't organizations who really have tried to defend the Mormon faith because they are out there.

Dr. Craig: Several years ago I participated in a book called The New Mormon Challenge edited by Carl Mosser and Craig Hazen in which we attempted to interact with the very best of Mormon scholarship on various issues, for example with professors at BYU on subjects like creation and American history and so forth. We tried to interact with a respectful but serious way with what Mormon scholarship has to say about these issues. One of the things that emerged during those conversations that surprised me and may be news to some of our listeners is that Mormonism doesn't really have a doctrinal creed to which it adheres. As you say, it tends to be very subjective, very experiential, and therefore there really isn't any sort of Mormon theology in a systematic way in which there is a Christian theology. As a result, Mormonism becomes very difficult to pin down – like nailing jello to the wall. You could say this Mormon theologian said that or this Mormon theologian wrote this, but he doesn't speak officially for the church. The head of the church – the Prophet – can get a new revelation from God at any time and change Mormon teaching on anything.

In fact, this has given some Christians great hope that eventually the Mormon church could become a bona fide Christian denomination. If the Prophet should say: It has been revealed to me by God that the doctrine of the Trinity is true; God is three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, equal in deity and power – this would change everything. It isn't as though there is any sort of creedal or doctrinal system that would prevent this.

So I say all this to simply underline what you are saying. Mormonism as a religious movement is not characterized by a kind of intellectual element in the way that Christian theology and the Christian church has been. It is more experiential, less doctrinal, less intellectual, and that would fit right in with the Rescue Plan – not attempting to mount an intellectual defense of Mormon doctrine and give apologetics but to simply do public opinion surveys and a better job of PR.

Kevin Harris: Bill, one thing that Mormon theologians are going to have to contend with – and I think they have been trying for a while – they have to defend a vicious infinite regress. They have to defend the notion of an actual eternity of gods, one after the other. In light of Big Bang cosmology and the kalam cosmological argument, they've got their hands full with that one.

Dr. Craig: Yes. After I first wrote the little book The Existence of God and the Beginning of the Universe back in 1979 it fairly quickly came to the attention of those who work in ministry to Mormons. They realized that what they had here was one of the most powerful arguments they’d ever encountered that struck at the very heart of Mormon theology, which is that the god of this universe is a physical humanoid being who was begotten by parents prior to him who were begotten by parents prior to them, and this goes back for infinity in this series of deities begetting other divine children. Of course, if that is impossible then that really undercuts the very heart of the Mormon doctrine of God. It would point to God not as an immanent finite being within the universe (which is what Mormons believe) but to a transcendent creator God beyond the universe. So part of the hope of those who work in ministry to Mormons is that Mormons will shed this polytheistic, finite, materialistic view of gods in favor of a more orthodox concept of God as a transcendent creator of the universe.[5]

Kevin Harris: What would you say that our Mormon friends would need to consider? Not just those who are teaching at Brigham Young, and philosophy professors, but the layperson who is a Mormon – what would they need to contend with regarding this issue that you just brought up?

Dr. Craig: It is absolutely central because in a sense Mormonism isn't really a form of theism at all. The deities that it postulates are just finite physical beings that live in outer space near the star Kolob. So in one sense it is kind of like ancient Greco-Roman polytheism. There are these material, finite, spacio-temporal deities (one of which is in charge of our universe), and we are on our way to deification where if we do right we will have a universe under our control and we will be the deity of that universe. So in one sense this really isn't a theistic religion at all. It is at best polytheistic if not just atheistic.

Kevin Harris: In conclusion today – we will do future podcasts on this – what would you say to our Mormon friends maybe who are contemplating what they should do?

Dr. Craig: I would encourage them, before they leap to secularism and atheism, to consider orthodox theism: the notion that there does exist a personal creator and designer of the universe who is a transcendent being beyond space and time and who has brought the universe into being and sustains it. I think that this will answer our deepest intellectual questions about the nature and the source of reality as well as provide us with grounds for meaning, value, and purpose in life and those things that Mormons value and hold dear. So I would invite them to not jump ship to secularism, but to seriously consider orthodox theism before they make so drastic a move.[6]