Is Mormonism declining in the 21st Century among educated Americans?

Guest Post: By Michael Terence Worley

Recently a number of people have claimed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is struggling.  A common recitation of the claim is that once members learn about certain facts about the faith, gain “thinking skills,” or learn about the Church’s positions on social-political issues they will leave.  For instance, a noted critic of Mormon teachings on women, Kate Kelly, said recently: “The Mormon faith has become a place that incentivizes the survival of the least fit. … [O]nly the least talented, least articulate, least nuanced thinkers, least likely to take a stand against abuse, and the least courageous people thrive in the Church today.”

This claim is frequently repeated in a variety of ways. But what do the statistics show? Are the more learned Latter-day Saints leaving the religion of their childhood while the less educated remain affiliated with the Latter-day Saint faith? By and large, not so. Let me explain.

The Pew Research Center has released a 2011 study stating in part:

“Mormons who have graduated from college display the highest levels of religious commitment (84%) followed by those with some college education (75%). Mormons with a high school education or less exhibit substantially lower levels of religious commitment (50% score high on the scale) than their more highly educated counterparts.”

This shows that whether or not the church is growing or shrinking as a whole, its shrinking isn’t coming from the most educated. In fact, it seems the more education one has, the more likely they are to be a faithful Latter-day Saint.  While some educated latter-day Saints some do leave, many conversations are taking place about how to help deal with such issues. More importantly, the data is showing many more educated Latter-day Saints stay than leave.

Some could argue that the groups of people most likely to leave the faith are intelligent young adults, influenced by cultural norms and the available information of our day and age.  Thus, the argument could contend, the group Pew was looking at was by and large too old to capture the problem.  Statistics seem to be skeptical of this claim as well.

Admission records at Brigham Young University are instructive.  Brigham Young, a school run by the LDS Church, admits more than 90% of its student body from among faithful Latter-day Saints. The students—some thirty thousand of them—are renowned in numerous nationwide polls.  If the narrative of Mormonism’s decline was true, one would expect that admission criteria for BYU would fall relative to other universities. However, admissions data reveals not only that more students want to come to BYU, but also that BYU is taking more academically qualified students each year. Students accepted to BYU are more likely to attend there than students admitted to Yale or Stanford—and some years Harvard—are likely to attend to their respective schools. This shows students want the lifestyle BYU offers.

There are other reasons to suspect most Latter-day Saints who are “smart” stay in the faith.  Graduate programs that require LDS standards may be another measure of LDS faithfulness, because (the narrative goes) many leave the LDS Faith in their undergraduate years or shortly thereafter.  The statistics dismiss this hypothesis. While some undoubtedly leave, many more stay. LDS-based graduate programs are among the top 30 in the nation, and some are in the top ten.  The LDS Faith’s support of many programs indicates it wants its members to be talented, articulate, nuanced thinkers, ready to stand against abuse and full of courage.

The narrative sometimes stated in the media as one of individuals being pressured to leave the LDS Faith is misleading on many levels.  One level on which it is misleading is the narrative that those leaving are the educated. In addition to pointing out accomplished and educated Mormons who choose to be faithful Latter-day Saints, one can point to statistics that show many, many intelligent people are Latter-day Saints. If anything, the concern should be the opposite of the one raised by Ms. Kelly—how do Latter-day Saints make sure they are not, as the Book of Mormon says, “distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning?” 

Thankfully, while BYU becomes elite, other LDS-based programs are seeking to provide educational opportunities for eventual millions of others worldwide who cannot for whatever reason attend BYU. Surely education level should not be a criterion for being a faithful Latter-day Saint. If anything, individual Latter-day Saints need to do a better job of reaching out to those who lack educational opportunities. 

Those who choose to believe differently than us have our respect and love; we believe that, regardless of educational achievement or choice of religion, each human is a son or daughter of God with infinite worth and dignity.

Michael Worley is a graduate of Brigham Young University’s Law School.  His work has appeared in the Oxford Journal of Law and Religion and other publications.

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  1. It's so funny who some can claim that because some have left the church, that we all are leaving. They are taking a "bandwagon" approach. They want some to join, because it is the popular thing to do. And it shows how "smart" you really are. When in reality, many of the smart ones are hold true to the truth that they know. Thanks for your thoughts.

  2. I choose to stay and have thrived in the LDS Church; therefore, I am less talented, less articulate, less nuanced in my thinking, and more tolerant of abuse, than those who see fit to criticize and/or leave?? Really? Thank you Ms. Skaggs, for standing up to such an insulting and irresponsible generalization.

  3. I find several issues with your analysis.

    While the pew study is interesting, it does not suggest the conclusions you have drawn. It tells us nothing about those who are leaving the church, only those who are staying. It is a high demand religion, so it isn't surprising that those who stay have high levels of devotion. You cannot draw any conclusions about who is staying versus leaving from this information.

    While it is interesting that some Mormon freshmen would choose BYU over Yale or Harvard, it still doesn't tell us much. That lots of Mormons are accepted by a solid second tier school like BYU doesn't tell us much either. Both selection processes are too encumbered with other factors to draw much of any conclusions about the relative merits of the schools or the student body. We only know that a lot of smart people were probably faithful during their years at BYU, we do not know what the eventual retention or disaffiliation in this population will be, which is what we are interested in.

    No matter how wonderfully rated BYU graduate programs are, it doesn't tell us who leaves and who stays in the church. It doesn't even tell us what percentage of Mormon college students wind up at BYU versus other schools, or how retention rates vary with alma mater.

    While you've spent a lot of time talking about educational achievement, Kelly said nothing about that. She said (and you replaced an important part with an ellipse), " Since strict obedience is demanded and harshly enforced, only the least talented, least articulate, least nuanced thinkers, least likely to take a stand against abuse, and the least courageous people thrive in the Church today."

    This sentence is the one you have to address, and your arguments did not address it.

    Does the church strictly enforce obedience? Do members stand up to the church? Are members too loyal, and therefore try not to think about or question the church's policy?

    1. As I understood it, the post was not a flat-out response to Kate Kelly's quote. It was a look at the general sentiment that Mormon's who stay don't have certain educational qualities... namely, social-political information and thinking skills. The writer was simply illustrating that statement by Kate Kelly's quote, as that is the essence of what she is saying. The writer set his agenda clearly in the first paragraph and made no promises to address the questions you say he needed to address; he was addressing one focused and narrow issue, of which that quote was merely an example of. And the writer clearly showed, by looking at both retention rates and the success of BYU students outside of BYU (and links to multiple sources of educated members who stay LDS), the writer effectively shows that Mormons can and do possess high quality thinking skills and information.

    2. I am perfectly aware of the imperfections you mention if you interpret my post as saying that no intellectuals leave or that most who leave are intellectual. I didn't claim that intellectuals don't leave the church; I meant to claim merely that many intellectuals stay. As I said: "some educated latter-day Saints some do leave." Yes, I said "More importantly, the data is showing many more educated Latter-day Saints stay than leave," but the thrust of my argument was more general: that many intelligent individuals stay.

      Regarding the Pew study you state: "While the pew study is interesting, it does not suggest the conclusions you have drawn. It tells us nothing about those who are leaving the church, only those who are staying. It is a high demand religion, so it isn't surprising that those who stay have high levels of devotion. You cannot draw any conclusions about who is staying versus leaving from this information."

      That is correct, however your articulation of that point does not answer this point: Why would the more educated who remain in the faith be more faithful than the less educated if the people Kate Kelly describes leave the faith? I mainly argued that education does not imply one will leave the church, which is born out by the data. Further, in order to make the argument that more educated LDS leave then stay, you would have to account for the lower levels of less-committed members the greater the education level. Those with lower education are less committed but one does not need a college degree to understand the obedience of of the LDS faith, so I am not seeing a compelling theoretical reason why there would be fewer semi-committed members the more educated there are-- especially since leaving the church is typically a long process.

      Secondly, I respectfully disagree with the statement that my university data is irrelevant, both at the graduate and undergraduate level. I think that the university data is relevant, because in most US-wide studies, people are the most liberal at 18-35. Thus, we would look at the choices of educated LDS youth for insights into their desires to be obedient. That plus my points stated in the article seem an adequate response.

      Last, you ask my opinion on Kelly's statement on strict obedience. I am confused at how one could be academically accomplished and not be talented, articulate, nuanced thinkers. Speaking from personal experience, to gain degrees in economics or law from BYU, you need exactly those skills.

      It is not germane to the post how I feel about strict obedience. However, since I "have" to answer that question, let me simply say this:

      The Jews' putting lamb's blood on a door to prevent death is to this day entirely unexplainable by science. However, the act required a good degree of obedience. But this doesn't imply that only the "least talented, least articulate, least nuanced thinkers, least likely to take a stand against abuse, and the least courageous people" followed Moses.

      To the comment implying that members of the church are too loyal, I simply direct you to recent talks by many of the apostles which state it is rare that they are unified on issues of policy absent divine intervention. Their education levels speak for themselves.

      My one regret about my post is that I didn't include this link about an intelligent Mormon who fights abuse:

    3. Ms. Kelly is the source to discredit her own claim that those who leave the church are less educated, less nuanced, and less articulate etc. She failed to research her claim with solid statistic information. Michael Worley refuted that particular claim with some good research. She merely took the select group with which she is familiar and inferred those qualities on everyone else leaving the church. This is not the most educated stance.

  4. I think Kate Kelly should have narrowed her comments. I think that members are nuanced thinkers (it takes a lot of nuance to see Zion in the culture of the Mormon Reformation or see God's hand in Joseph Smith's polyandry). There is plenty of talent, articulation and nuance when the goal is to sustain and uphold the Church.

    These skills are not applied to stand up to the church.

    Which is fine, if the Church is indeed perfect.

    1. Christ and his gospel is perfect. Individual members are not.

  5. Hmmmm.....I'm going to need to think about this. But I love the discussion coming from the post!


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