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CRITICS, APOLOGISTS, AND UTAH STATISTICS


You’ll hear it all the time – on both sides of the coin. “Utah has the highest suicide rate in the nation” chides the critics. “People in Utah live longer than the national average” says the apologist. Heck, sometimes you will even hear Utah statistics come up in sacrament meeting talks and firesides. Regardless of who is using it, the logic seems to always work like this:

Because Utah is predominately Mormon,
And because Utah has stat X
-------------------------------------------
Stat X must be because of the LDS Church.

Unless one is skeptical of the person speaking/writing in the first place (i.e. if a faithful member hears a statistic from a critic, or vice versa), most of the time this kind of reasoning is simply accepted. But should it be? Should statistical information about the state of Utah be accepted at face value as a reflection on the LDS Church?

According to good ole’ Wikipedia, as of 2007, Utah 60.7% Mormon, with slightly less than that (58%) based on how Utahans identified themselves in a survey from 2008. While that certainly indicates a large majority, it is not overwhelming. Furthermore, only 41.7% are identified as active Mormons, making the majority of the population either non-LDS, or inactive LDS. These numbers have been on the decline in recent years, and that is likely to continue since the 2008 US Census Bureau reported that, in terms of population growth, Utah is the fastest growing state in the country, with the second fastest growing metropolitan (Saint George) and micropolitan (Heber City) area’s in the country. Part of that is likely natural population growth (children born in Utah), but such a high rate no doubt includes a large number of people moving into the state, and it is doubtful that they are all Mormons.

Does all this mean that Utah statistics are worthless in determining the impact that LDS Church has on people and communities? No. Utah statistics can be very helpful in allowing us to see just what the positives and negatives of LDS culture are on society; but, we need to be careful not to be hasty in drawing our conclusions. Everyone needs to be reminded that correlation does not equal causation. To reach “set in stone” conclusions about the LDS Church based state of Utah statistics is making hasty generalizations, which lead to erroneous conclusion.

When confronted with statistics from Utah meant to “prove” one thing or another for or against the LDS Church, here are few questions that one should ask:

1. What are the demographics of this study? Do we know the religious affiliations of the participants? If so, how many of stat X are actually LDS?

2. What are other factors that may have caused or contributed to these results? Depending on just what the statistic is about, factors such as culture, income, climate, ethnicity, mental health, dietary and exercise habits, job stability, education, etc. can all have impact on various things such as suicide or life expectancy.

3. Is there any reason to believe that the LDS Church’s influence is the cause (or a contributing cause) to stat X? Is there anything about the LDS Church, its policies and programs, etc. which might contribute to stat X? Is there a logical connection between the two?

These are just few examples of questions you ought to consider, if anyone can think of anything that should be taken into account, feel free to mention it. I am no statistics major, so I am sure there is much to be desired in my little analysis here.

Anyway, to say it again, I am not saying statistics about Utah are worthless on Mormon related issues. Such statistics can provide valuable insight on the impact that LDS Church (and its unintended cultural influences) has on both LDS and non-LDS residents, for good and for bad. My point is simply that we all (whether you be a critic, apologists, or just an ordinary LDS faithful) need to be more careful and thoughtful in how we use these statistics to draw conclusions about the LDS Church.

Comments

  1. Good post. A similar discussion was had over at the SHAFT blog, when I posted about conflicting reports where one reported that Utah is the happiest state, and other reported that it's the most depressed.

    http://usu-shaft.com/2009/bipolar-disorder-thy-name-is-utah/

    ReplyDelete
  2. Good discussion over on SHAFT. As I hope my post made clear, I think it is important that we try and understand HOW the LDS Church MIGHT be effecting different statistics in Utah - both the good and the bad. Once we do that, both the state and the Church can work together to improve things. But we accomplish nothing if we just jump to conclusions about the LDS Church based of state wide statistics.

    A lot of the social problems that arise from dominate LDS culture are unintended by-products, and I believe that the Church does wish to work to fix some of those issues. However, we first need to know HOW the Church is effecting the problem.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This quote was recently shared with me, and I thought it was quite good, and very applicable to the point trying to be made here:

    The resort to Utah data, as a surrogate for Mormon data, is all too common in much of the social science literature generally, understandable as that might be. Even if we can be fairly sure of the Mormon proportion of the state of Utah, the nature and extent of the Mormon/non-Mormon mix lying behind any conclusion are very complicated issues, sure to produce many "weeds" and "thistles". (Armand L. Mauss, "Flowers, Weeds and Thistles: The State of Social Science Literature on the Mormons," in Mormon History, ed. Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whittaker, James B. Allen. University of Illinois Press, 2001, p.159)

    ReplyDelete

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