417: Dr. Ryan Cragun on his new book “What You Don’t Know About Religion (but should)”

WYDKAR_Blue_2Today we interview Dr. Ryan Cragun about his new book, “What You Don’t Know about Religion (but Should).”  Ryan is a  professor at the University of Tampa, and specializes in the sociological study of religion, focusing on Mormonism, the nonreligious, and secularization.  Topics covered in this podcast include:

  • Why are people religious?
  • Are religious people more educated than nonreligious people?
  • Are religious people more moral, more humble, or happier?
  • Are religious people more or less prejudiced than nonreligious people?
  • Is religion good for your health and happiness?
  • Are people becoming more or less religious?
  • What are the alternatives to religion?

Please post any additional questions you have for Ryan here.  Thanks!




119 comments for “417: Dr. Ryan Cragun on his new book “What You Don’t Know About Religion (but should)”

  1. May 2, 2013 at 4:25 pm

    Looking forward to listening to this interview. Any chance of a kindle version of this book?

    • May 2, 2013 at 4:28 pm

      Kindle version should be available June 1st.

  2. May 2, 2013 at 4:38 pm

    Great, thanks Ryan.

  3. M. Tannahill
    May 2, 2013 at 8:11 pm

    Wonderful discussion but where is the address to request the sample chapter?

  4. Johnny
    May 3, 2013 at 9:02 am

    Thanks Ryan. Enjoyed the podcast a lot. Can you provide links to the studies (or reports on the studies) you mentioned related to sexual repression/better sex for less-religious people?

  5. Marcus
    May 3, 2013 at 11:28 am

    I appreciated your explanation of the happiness of non-religious compaired to the happiness of religious fundamentalists. I’ve frequently struggle to explain the concept of depressive realism to my family and friends. I recently came across this image which summed it up nicely. It’s called “The Trouble with Perspective”: http://i.imgur.com/LreCOuB.jpg

    • May 3, 2013 at 11:45 am

      You’re right. That picture does a great job!

    • Tim
      May 26, 2013 at 4:43 pm

      The picture struck a chord with me, but I think it is flawed in that it seems to imply that you only only negative things as you become more educated. There is so much beauty in the life, so much good, so much to be excited about. The discoveries of science, the progress of mankind in knowledge, the rational basis for morality and the evolutionary fitness for societal happiness… you can be both enlightened and choose which thoughts you wish to be your focus.

      Sure, the wizard behind the curtain is revealed, and you see that there is in fact no wizard, and that can be difficult to face.

      Or maybe I’m ignorant? Well, there are useful ideas, and factual ideas, and sometimes they aren’t the same thing.

  6. Marcus
    May 3, 2013 at 11:31 am

    John – Excellent interview. Thank you.

    FWIW, I laughed out loud at your comment. “Liberals are incredible difficult to organize and manage”. I attended the D. Michael Quinn lecture in Aug 2011, and had the following text exchange with my wife while sitting in the pews:

    Wife: We are going to the dollar movie. How is the lecture?
    Me: Hasn’t started yet.
    Wife: Wasn’t it supposed to start 30 minutes ago? What’s the hold up?
    Me: Nothing particular, just a meeting run by people who dislike organization.

    • May 3, 2013 at 11:42 am

      lol. Thanks, Marcus. We had technical difficulties that day (in trying to stream it live to people). Anyway, fun memories. 🙂

      • Marcus
        May 3, 2013 at 1:37 pm

        Fun memories, indeed. Keep up the great work.

  7. May 3, 2013 at 12:20 pm

    Fascinating interview! I loved John’s questions, like when he pushed back on Ryan about atheists being more tolerant, because don’t they hate religious people and aren’t religious people something like 80% of the population? And I loved Ryan’s response, that it’s a great point, but that they really dislike the orthodox and should be clearer about that.

  8. Tahadden
    May 3, 2013 at 1:12 pm

    He is cherry picking. Utah Porn Study was just poor. His Charitable giving is also problematic, giving to you University Club charity but giving to you church that is just a club membership.

    • May 3, 2013 at 1:42 pm

      I wouldn’t call that cherry picking. I didn’t put much emphasis on the porn study in the podcast and it doesn’t even get mentioned in my book. It’s a funny finding; seriously, I think it’s hilarious!

      As far as giving goes, all I said was that nonreligious people are just as likely to give to nonreligious charities (or more so, as some studies find) as are religious people. Sure, they give less to religions, but why should they give to institutions to which they don’t belong?

      As far as “club memberships” go… That’s a different point. Some have suggested that the reason religious people are so likely to give to religions is because it functions as a sort of club membership. Thus, how “charitable” are people really if they are giving because it’s the equivalent of club dues and not just giving without getting anything in return? That’s a separate argument to who gives more. That’s calling into question the motives of religious people for giving to their religions. It’s interesting, but not of primary interest to me.

      • Tahadden
        May 3, 2013 at 3:47 pm

        The Utah Porn study is funny because it was written to be funny. It was not to find anything about porn usage it was written to show that Utah was the largest user of porn. As such it has no value and should not be used, like using the creationist journals to disprove evolution.
        NPR is an example of a non-religious “Club” that counts as a charity, the urban areas are full of them like Art org or AAUW are much more like clubs that are more about being in the club than helping you fellowman. The IRS standard is not perfect but is the best standard for charitable giving.
        If you want to identify charities that are about selfless giving then you need to just count those, not throw out the religious giving to make the categories equal.

    • David
      May 3, 2013 at 5:16 pm

      I think he makes a good point about religious donations not really being voluntary. You face social consequences for not donating. In Mormonism where the consequences are very high for not donating I think among those who attend regularly the percentage who donate is quite high and they give pretty large amounts. Maybe for other churches where the consequences aren’t so high people give smaller amounts but for those who actively participate I would imagine most still give something. There aren’t really any consequences for not donating to your alma mater. The average percentage of alumni that give in a two year period is 13% according US News. If there were huge social costs for not donating I think that number would be much higher.

  9. Clinton
    May 3, 2013 at 1:36 pm


    Does religion make a difference in who is willing to bear and raise children? In particular, I would be interested in whether religion promotes parenthood and the number of children born into higher socioeconomic families. What is your assessment of the highly secularized European countries that are facing long-term economic crises because they are becoming depopulated (birthrates below the replacement rate)? Does religion help society by contributing to a quality generation of young people who will care for an aging population? I am always shocked to discover over and over again how often intellectuals eschew raising up the next generation in their own families. What does this mean for society?

    • May 3, 2013 at 1:37 pm

      Great questions, Clinton!

    • May 3, 2013 at 2:22 pm

      Good question. I address birth rates in the book. Religious people do, on average, have more kids. But religious people – really, religious fundamentalists and moderates – are more authoritarian in how they raise their kids (they want obedience over autonomy and are very strict).

      I didn’t examine whether religious people who are of a higher socioeconomic status (i.e., rich religious people) are more likely to have kids. That’s a good question. I could examine that relatively quickly for the US if it interests you and let you know what I find.

      I’m not sure the economic crisis facing European countries is primarily due to lower than replacement level fertility rates. There are other issues involving monetary policy and social welfare that are big issues, too. The coming glut of elderly people is going to be a problem in a lot of countries – from the highly developed European countries to Russia and the Eastern European countries, as well as Japan, China, Australia, and New Zealand. Yes, many of those countries are fairly secular, but the strongest predictor of fertility rates isn’t religiosity; it’s women’s empowerment and economic structure. When kids become expensive (i.e., parents have to pay to educate them) rather than when kids contribute to family income (e.g., when there is a lot of farming), fertility rates tend to drop pretty dramatically. I doubt religion will offset that to any real extent. Even among Mormons fertility rates have dropped in the last 50 years to where they are just a bit above the national average; kids are just too expensive.

      Your point about highly educated people (i.e., intellectuals) not wanting to have kids is a good one. There is good evidence that education and the number of kids people have are inversely correlated. To what extent that is a serious problem, I don’t. Other issues can be introduced here to complicate this issue, like over-population concerns and the environment, as well as migration (people from less-developed countries could move to more developed countries to offset population losses due to an aging population). So, yeah, these are complicated issues without clear answers. I don’t think religion holds the key to addressing population issues, though.

      • Clinton
        May 3, 2013 at 3:46 pm


        Thanks for your thoughtful response. I would be very interested in any evidence you can provide about whether religion increases commitment to raising children among high socioeconomic families. Maybe I am imagining, but anecdotally it seems there is a real paradox when it comes to intellectualism and parenting in the social sciences—we know so much about what is needed to help people thrive and do well in life—but does academia deliver in our personal lives? Below is one of my all-time favorite excerpts summing up this area:

        Bogenschneider and Corbett (2010):

        In the midst of the decade’s global economic transformation, every nation’s competitiveness will depend more than ever on its human capital, in particular the education and social skills of its labor force. Human capital in the new knowledge-based economies, according to economists like Heckman (2006), requires cognitive and non cognitive skills, both of which are shaped to a large extent by socialization that occurs early in family life and in preschool programs. In knowledge-based economies, family contributions can be even more substantial because children can remain economically dependent on their parents, at least in part, for the 30 – 35 years it can take to develop the panoply of technical abilities, credentials, social competencies, and personal maturity technically advanced jobs require (Longman,2004, p. 136):

        Doctors . . . must first be born. Doctors must also, for many years, be swaddled, fed, and comforted . . . . Prodigious human effort is further required to teach them to read their first sentence and to add their first sums. Indeed, teaching them to read almost always requires far more adult effort and pedagogical savvy than teaching them biochemistry, the latter of which is usually performed in large lecture halls by teaching assistants and junior faculty members. Moreover, because doctors must be trusted with highly technical life-and-death decisions, they had also better acquire a strong sense of morality, balanced personality, sober habits of living, and discipline—all of which will most likely require vast commitments of time and money by parents and other nurturing adults.

        Economic policy debates often are myopic because they fail to connect the dots among contributors to human capital development. As aptly put by Folbre (2008), ‘‘If parents don’t create and nurture children, schools can’t educate them, employers can’t hire them, and governments can’t tax them’’ (p. 179).

        • May 4, 2013 at 6:02 am


          Just ran a quick analysis and it suggests that religious fundamentalism and other measures of religiosity (e.g., attendance) do increase the odds of having more kids when you control for income or when you look only at the top 1/4 of households by income. I ran this several ways (using regression where I controlled for income and other variables and ANOVA where I limited the analysis to the top 1/4 of households by income).

          Here is some of the output of the ANOVA which is easier to understand. First, by attendance (only looking at the top 1/4 of household incomes in the US):

          And by religious fundamentalism (also only looking at the top 1/4 of household incomes in the US):

          Those two figures show the various groups followed by the number in those groups (“N”) and then the “mean” or “average” number of kids reported. That’s the column you want to compare.

          In other words, yes, people in higher socioeconomic classes who are more religious have more kids (even when you control for things like education, sex, race; not shown). (FYI, data come from the 2008, 2010, and 2012 waves of the GSS.)

          • Pacumeni
            May 7, 2013 at 1:08 pm

            This is a consequential concession. If current European trends continue, Europe will be substantally depopulated (as least of indigenous Europeans) in about 150 years. If we think of this in evolutionary terms, secularism is a dead end. It doesn’t reproduce. Clearly, Cragun, leveraging his now despised Mormon heritage, has become a missionary for his new secular faith, a very necessary act because the anti-natal tendencies of atheism/secularism mean that the belief system can survive only as a parasite attached to pro-natal religious cultures.

          • May 7, 2013 at 1:19 pm


            While it’s fun to prophesy 150 years into the future, I wouldn’t put much weight behind such estimations. Europe today is not what Europe was 150 years ago. And Europe 150 years from now will not be what Europe is today. Your prognostication of Europe’s apparent “demise” is a bit, shall we say, premature. And that’s overlooking the racist and European-centric undertones to your comment – as though allowing non-Europeans into Europe somehow results in Europe being “depopulated” or as though there is such a thing as “indigenous Europeans,” consider we are all from Africa, originally.

            Atheism is a parasite to theism. I’ll grant that. It’s defined by what it is not. Secular humanism is not a parasite. It’s defined by what it is.

            But I think what you were saying is that nonreligious people can only survive by converting the kids who are only being birthed by religious people. Hmm… That’s simply not true. Nonreligious people do have kids. They just don’t have them by the dozen, like, say, Quiverfull folks do. Why? For the reasons I outlined elsewhere in the comments: cost, concern for the environment, and desire to raise healthy kids.

            In fact, a growing number of kids in the US are being raised without religion: http://secularismandnonreligion.org/index.php/snr/article/view/5

          • Clinton
            May 7, 2013 at 1:35 pm

            I agree with Ryan about prognosticating 150 years into the future. There are too many variables to make any kind of reasonable assumptions. If the rampant speculation on worldwide overpopulation that was the talk-of-the-day a few decades ago had materialized we would have many hordes more people than the hordes of people we have today. In my sci-fi world, atheism and homosexuality could have emerged as some sort of societal-level check on overpopulation. Instead, I am much more interested in what will become of the European nations in the next 20-30 years.

          • Pacumeni
            May 15, 2013 at 12:54 pm

            RE: “Nonreligious people do have kids. They just don’t have them by the dozen, like, say, Quiverfull folks do.”

            If the rate at which nonreligious people have kids falls below replacement rate (as it generally does), nonreligious people are an evolutionarly dead end even if they do have some children. Secular Humanism is, thus, a parasitic culture. The source of the quiverfulll allusion has 5 children, not a dozen. I hope/trust you avoid similar hyperbole when makng arguments in your book. If we take Clinton’s 20 to 30 year horizon as our standard for evaluation, Europe is in clearly in serious trouble. Indeed, we needn’t wait 20 years. Most analysts agree: in combination, the European birth dearth and welfare state are already economically unsustainable. The problem is already apparent in the current European financial crisis. To be sure, the word “indiginous” becomes meaningless if one presses on it hard enough. (But if I mustn’t look forward 150 years, should you look back a million to decontextualize “indigeneous” by placing us all in Africa?) Like languages, cultures can disappear over time. Lamentably, the Navaho I learned when young has almost disappeared as a living language. The disappearance of once vibrant cultural and linguistic traditions isn’t lamentable only when the disappearance occurs outside of Europe.

          • Mary
            June 3, 2013 at 2:50 am

            Ryan, thank you for calling Pacumeni out on the racist subtext in his or her statements. Immigration in western Europe and the United States from impoverished overpopulated countries is a win-win situation. Now if we could just do something about the xenophobia…

            Also, Pacumeni, as Ryan pointed out non-religious people do have children, just at lower rates than religious people. It only takes 2 children per woman to keep a population at replacement levels. The birthrate of a number of western European countries (France, for example), has in fact increased over the last couple of decades and is now at or close to replacement rate. So I would agree that all the doom and gloom prognosticating is a bit premature.

  10. Michael
    May 3, 2013 at 2:38 pm

    So the main message I took away from this podcast is that fundamentalist religion is bad and more moderate and liberal religion is not. I think this last general conference showed a more fundamentalist Mormonism.
    I wonder what the percentages are of fundamentalists, moderates, and liberals are in the church

    • May 3, 2013 at 3:14 pm

      I don’t have an exact answer, Michael, but I can tell you the following: Of the ~660 Mormons who have participated in the GSS (1972-2010), 32.8% are Biblical literalists, 58.8% believe the Bible is the inspired word of god, and 5.6% believe the Bible is a book of fables. Biblical literalism is usually a key question for determining whether or not someone is a fundamentalist (fundamentalists are literalists, but this is complicated for Mormons, who believe the Bible is inspired based on what Joseph Smith taught).

      Using a different question, acceptance of evolution, just 17.5% of Mormons accept that humans evolved, but a slightly higher 26.5% believe the universe began with a huge explosion. These capture acceptance of science, which is another aspect of religious fundamentalism.

      These numbers don’t tell us a definitive answer, but it would suggest that somewhere around 10% of Mormons (could be as high as 20% or as low as 5%) are liberally religious. Distinguishing between moderates and fundamentalists would be more difficult.

      (Also, do note that the GSS data I just used is aggregated over a nearly 40 year time period, which has its own problems.)

      • Brian
        May 3, 2013 at 10:57 pm

        Hey Ryan, thanks for answering questions, I’m going to piggy-back off this post.
        The definition of “religious fundamentalist” seems to be an ambiguous one. You mention in the podcast that the LDS church falls under the title based on the percentage of biblical literalists and such. Why is biblical literalism an indication of fundamentalism? You’d think that one of universal requirements for Christianity is to believe the Bible is true and the word of God. Do many practicing Catholics not take the Bible literally? (you mentioned they fall under the liberal category) Are more people taking a more “symbolic” or “allegorical” approach to the Bible nowadays?

        Thanks again for being here!

        • May 4, 2013 at 6:11 am

          Hi Brian,

          Good questions. First, one correction. If I said Catholics fell into the liberal group, that wasn’t correct. They fall into the moderate group. (I’m pretty sure I got that correct in the podcast; if not, my bad.)

          Second, all classification schemes are artificial. They are attempts by those who study groups to find meaningful ways to distinguish between them. I mentioned in the podcast that there are other ways of distinguishing between religions. One that was popular for a long time was the church-sect continuum, which has fallen out of favor (Mormonism was often depicted as a “cult” under that scheme). The one I used has also started to fall out of favor, but I chose it because I wanted to focus on religious fundamentalists. The current scheme du jour is a scheme proposed by Brian Steensland: http://www.indiana.edu/~soc/pdf/Steensland%20Et%20Al_2000.pdf

          It didn’t do what I wanted, so I went with the one I used. But it does offer finer discrimination within groups.

          This is all to address part of your question about why “Biblical literalism” is a criteria for fundamentalism. That is simply part of the classification scheme. In order to distinguish between different types of religion, scholars have to choose criteria. One of the criteria chosen is Biblical literalism. And that is one of the primary characteristics that distinguishes between conservative and liberal Protestants (or Conservative and Mainline) as well as between fundamentalists and liberals. Yes, you’d think that believing in the Bible is a requirement of Christianity, but how you think about the Bible can vary. Most members of liberal religions take an allegorical perspective on the Bible: the stories aren’t literally true, but they have useful messages. Most members of fundamentalist religions believe the stories are literally true. That distinction matters – which is one of the primary points in my book.

          And your last question: Are people taking a more allegorical approach to the Bible today? Yes. The shift hasn’t been dramatic, but the percentage of Americans rejecting Biblical literalism is going up (this is also shown in my book).

          I hope that answers your questions.

  11. Brad
    May 3, 2013 at 7:58 pm

    I appreciated the podcast! Thanks! Though, there are a couple things that were somewhat disconcerting/surprising about Dr. Cragun’s research/presentation.

    1) Either he had momentary flashes of forgetting his audience or he really had a personal score to settle. I’m thinking most specifically of his declaration (made more dramatic by the ensuing 15 seconds of dead air) that religious fundamentalists “are the most hateful people on the planet.” I’m glad John pushed back somewhat, but this was upsetting (and not because I’m *apparently* one of those “fundamentalists”). First, “hateful” is now synonymous with “intolerant of certain minority groups of interest to the GSS”? I’m all for tolerance, and I would like to think of myself as in the “liberally religious” camp when it comes to my attitudes toward minority groups. But in my limited understanding of econometrics (i studied it a few years in College, and thus did not have the vast training Dr. Cragun has so forgive me), the terms we use in operationalizing our study directly impact the type of conclusions we are allowed to draw. This move struck me as plain wrong. And second, Dr. Cragun ought to have more sympathy for John’s initial shock at the LDS Church’s inclusion in the “fundamentalist” category, and therefore recognize the very legitimate (even if visceral) urge to protest (again, not just because people don’t like hard truths). Mormons inclusion with fundamentalists, as Dr. Cragun even concedes, is odd given many of the demographic tendencies (wealth, education, etc.). So, when Dr. Cragun calls Religious Fundamentalists “hateful,” without searching for the nuance as he was otherwise wont to do on behalf of Richard Dawkins’s hatefulness of the religious, he is being unduly harsh toward his former faith and hypocritical in his analysis.

    2) I guess this is more of a question but it touches on a concern of mine. Again, disclaimer – my knowledge of econometrics/statistics is woefully outmatched here. But as I understand it, most of Dr. Cragun’s data is useful for understanding correlations rather than causations, yet there seemed to be, in the tone and direction of the conversation, some hidden, implicit assumption of causation. Further, many of the effects for which Dr. Cragun has graded these four categories seem very influenced by education and socioeconomic status. In other words, many of the conclusions drawn in his book (which I am looking forward to reading, but admittedly have not yet) seem really susceptible to multicollinearity problems. Without any instrumental variables, it seems that all causation and many of the correlation conclusions are suspect. Can you help me understand how you have avoided this?

    • Brad
      May 3, 2013 at 7:59 pm

      Again, though, just because I only highlighted my concerns with the podcast should not underscore how tremendously valuable and insightful it was. I learned a lot and truly do look forward to reading your book. Great work!

      • Zack T.
        May 4, 2013 at 3:01 am

        Brad, I always like your comments you seemed to be very thoughtful and balanced. Refreshing.

    • May 4, 2013 at 6:37 am

      Hi Brad,

      Great questions.

      1) I’m harsh on fundamentalists. But not without reason. I haven’t posted all of the figures in the book (you’ll have to buy it to see them!), but in the chapter on tolerance and prejudice, it’s pretty apparent that fundamentalists are really prejudiced. To give a sampling – 20% of the nonreligious oppose homosexual marriage, 61% of fundamentalists do; 19% of the nonreligious think homosexual sex is wrong while 70% of fundamentalists do. I’ve heard lots of people try to explain why opposition to homosexuality is not prejudice, but those “explanations” fall flat to me. For example, people chalk it up to scripture, but they are selectively quoting passages of the Bible and ignoring neighboring sections, which suggests this isn’t about following religious dictates but justifying prejudices. In my opinion, those gaps are big – very big. What’s more, and this is why I tend to be hyperbolic with fundamentalists, the most extreme religious fundamentalists would like to deny me the right to exist: atheists should be killed, according to some fundamentalists (e.g., dominion theology advocates). For a rather obvious reason, I CANNOT tolerate that. So, yeah, I go after fundamentalists, but I believe for good reason.

      Now, the fact that Mormons get grouped into the fundamentalist camp isn’t entirely fair based on that last point, as most Mormons (at least members of the LDS Church) would grant me the right to live (FLDS would take bigger issues with my existence). But if you look at Mormons’ views toward homosexuality, they fall right in line with other fundamentalists. Likewise with their views toward atheists, communists, women, and racists (all groups examined in the book). Also, Mormons tend to fall in line with fundamentalists on science acceptance. So, while Mormons differ in some ways, they align with fundamentalists in many other ways.

      2) I do imply causation here, again with justification. There is a great study by Johnson et al. that illustrates a causal relationship between Christian religious ideas and prejudice: http://spp.sagepub.com/content/1/2/119.abstract

      So, yes, this has been shown to be causal.

      As per your second point, I note in the methodological appendix that almost all of the relationships I have identified hold up when you include statistical controls. Just to illustrate this, here is the output of a very basic linear regression predicting attitudes toward homosexual sex:

      Included are just three variables – education, respondent’s sex, and how fundamentalist someone is. All three variables are significant predictors of attitudes toward homosexual sex, but the strongest, even when you control for the other two, is religious fundamentalism. In other words, fundamentalists are still prejudiced when you control for their lower levels of education.

      In sum, yep, I’m not a fan of fundamentalism because it has repeatedly been shown to increase prejudice and intolerance. And, as I wrote in the book and said in the podcast, we need tolerance in our increasing globalized world.

      I hope that makes sense.

      • Brad
        May 6, 2013 at 12:25 am

        Thanks for the thorough response! Again, I look forward to reading the book and thanks for the podcast!

  12. Andrew
    May 3, 2013 at 11:15 pm

    I’m sorry, but this was extremely disappointing. I found it to be little more than an hour-long lecture on why secularism rocks and religion sucks. It’s hard to see this as an “objective” book when we consider the souce and his leanings.

    • May 4, 2013 at 6:44 am

      Andrew, in logic we call your comment an “ad hominem”. You aren’t debating what I’ve said, your attacking my character. You’re free to do that, but it’s unlikely anyone will take you seriously if you do. If you don’t like what I’ve said, take issue with it: download the data and examine it for yourself. The data are publicly available. That’s why I chose to use the data I did.

      Maybe the reason you find this disappointing is because what I’ve said runs counter to what you believe. As a result, you want to reject what I’ve said. And, for you, the easiest way to do that is to simply dismiss my arguments and data based on the fact that I’m not a believer, like you. That’s precisely the attitude I’m trying to counter with my work.

      • Adam
        May 4, 2013 at 11:20 pm

        I wouldn’t call it an “ad homonym” attack by Andrew at all in questioning the objectivity of your book. When you seem to struggle during the entire podcast to accept any benefit at all of religion even when science is on it’s side without having to bring up some supporting “nuance” to the contrary, you come across more as a non-religious apologetic rather than from any position of neutrality which you would generally hope to expect with someone working in the social sciences. I think the perfect example of this was writing off greater levels of happiness with delusion. It’s not because their life is filled with love or peace or purpose….they’re simply delusional! Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think your entirely one-sided, but it does seems like you do arrange your data to fit your particular world view. Just saying…I don’t think Andrew is the only one dismissing arguments that run contrary to what he believes.

        • May 5, 2013 at 7:49 am


          Of course no one is objective. We all have biases. But I didn’t gather the data and anyone can verify the data. I may interpret it differently than others when there is room to interpret the data. But does that mean you should dismiss the whole book? In my opinion, of course not. But that’s what Andrew is suggesting. Because I don’t share his biases, then everything I say is suspect. That is an ad hominem. He isn’t critiquing my argument, he’s critiquing me.

    • Blorg Jorgensson
      May 31, 2013 at 2:20 pm

      Wow, that’s not what I got out of it at all. I felt like Ryan was pretty clear in saying that his harsh criticism is of fundamentalist religion, and he even expressed his hesitance to lump the LDS Church in that camp (even though it officially is).

      And I agree that your last point is an ad hominem argument: He can’t be objective because he doesn’t agree with me. By that logic, why should we trust anything a believer says about religion?

  13. May 4, 2013 at 4:56 am

    Ryan – My question is….what is the overall well-being of non-religious fundamentalists (i.e. the followers of Dawkins/Hitchens/Harris who tend to be intolerant towards the religious)? Are they happy? Healthy? Productive?

    • May 4, 2013 at 6:39 am

      Hi John,

      I mention at the very end of the book that almost all of these relationships hold for atheists, and in many cases that are accentuated. In other words, atheists are even more educated, more wealthy, more intelligent, more tolerant (except of fundamentalists), more accepting of science, more gender egalitarian, etc. The reason I didn’t focus on them is because of small sample sizes. But, increasingly, there are datasets that include lots of atheists. And, just because I hadn’t looked in the GSS for this, here’s a crosstab of belief in god by happiness:

      Turns out, atheists are about as happy as theists. So, yeah, atheists (which isn’t necessarily what you meant by “fundamentalist” atheists) come out pretty good on all of these characteristics.

      • May 4, 2013 at 7:53 am

        I guess I’m curious to know if fundamentalism is “bad” whether it’s of the religious or non-religious type.

        • May 4, 2013 at 2:01 pm

          I do take atheists who exhibit “fundamentalist” tendencies to task in the book. I think you and I are in agreement that atheism of that sort doesn’t do much good. But as far as characteristics go, they tend to be pretty good manifestations of secular humanism.

          Also, Luke Galen has some great work on this topic that suggests atheists fare pretty well when it comes to subjective well-being:

        • Rude Dog
          May 16, 2013 at 10:40 pm

          Ahh John, the old trope of “fundamentalist” atheism being the false dichotomy of, well, anything other than the embrace of the metaphysical world, or at least the nod or hope of its mushy, squishy possibility. Yes, the materialist worshipers of microscopes and telescopes and the very scientific method attempting to keep far from us our likely propensity to delude ourselves, it is the atheist, who although being open to the concept of God, is labeled a fundamentalist when we insist the unlikelihood that your concept of God, your religion out of the thousands of Gods and religions that have followed our species, yea the anthropomorphic angry bearded Caucasian may not exist. I think there is amazing projecting from believers towards atheists. Yes, fundamentalism is bad whether it’s of the religious or non-religious type. Criticism of religion and insisting that faith and the numinous cannot be proved, just believed or not believed is not fundamentalist behavior. Hell, we atheists will even give you that religion can and does bring happiness to its adherents and well may be happier than non-believers myself included, although I must posit that going from believing Mormon to confidently and firm atheism has brought an amazing amount of happiness, and a deep satisfaction, meaning, and liberation.

          This brings me to your happiness and well being question. Who says that happiness is the ultimate end point for us as a species? You know that the majority of atheists are well educated, non-criminal, productive members of society. We tend to support equality, compromise, societal advancement. We know more about religion than any religious group (this same study showed we were followed closely by Mormons when it came to knowledge about the Bible and comparative religion) and we are generally concerned for the welfare of our fellow creatures. Are we as happy as the religious? I doubt it, and I don’t think we should be. In fact, the question of happiness is in my estimation the question of a child. Asking if there is a greater happiness in belief than non-belief is like asking if a child is happier than an adult. I would say a healthy child who is not a product of abuse or exploitation is basically happier than an adult of the same circumstance. I’d say it is a happier circumstance to believe in Santa Clause than to not believe. Ecclesiastes reminds that “With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge the more grief.” That ignorance is bliss is not far off. In addition ignorance breeds confidence, breeds solipsism, and a particular lack of humility. We atheists do stare the abyss of death without consolation and it would be nice to believe. But believing would not alter reality, and my non-belief has led me to take every day as extremely rare and important, I see too many happy religionists who put off till “the other side” the execution of important endeavors, including the pursuit of the true circumstance of our reality.

          At the top of Maslow’s hierarchy is the concept of self-actualization. Of all the characteristics Maslow and Goldstein used to describe self actualization, happiness was not one of them. Some characteristics include:

          -Efficient perceptions of reality
          -Comfortable acceptance of self, others, nature.
          -Fellowship with humanity.
          -Comfort with Solitude.
          -Continued freshness of appreciation.

          I am an atheist. It is not only my belief that probably, most likely God does not exist, but evidence points towards this conclusion as well, at least the Gods that have for millions of years been articulated by human minds. That God could exist inside the laws of physics or elsewhere I’m open to, but until that purpose and observation has been established, let’s just concentrate on the hear and now, which is this world, within which there are great challenges that would wipe the smile off anyone’s face that comprehends them. Let’s let our kids grow up happy. But dare I say, when we become adults let’s put that away and become men and women of Christ, and with sobriety and an eye single, work within the framework of reality towards the betterment of our societies, our planet, and our fellow man.

          • Clinton
            May 17, 2013 at 8:02 am

            Hey Rude Dog,

            I very much enjoyed reading about your perspective. I was surprised by where you ended up and it brought to mind some questions I have had since studying Maslow’s hierarchy–well one question anyway and that is, where do you think Jesus of Nazareth would come out on this scale?

            -Efficient perceptions of reality.
            -Comfortable acceptance of self, others, nature.
            -Fellowship with humanity.
            -Comfort with Solitude.
            -Continued freshness of appreciation.

            Antoher question: Your candor about how “we atheists do stare the abyss of death without consolation” is not something that the atheists I know seem willing to say. do you think this comes from your atheism or former Mormonism? And, when you discuss death, with your atheist friends how is the discussion different than with religious believers. I would be very interested to know if those conversations are as different as I often have to assume they might be.


          • Rude Dog
            May 17, 2013 at 7:00 pm

            Probably ought figure out if Jesus existed or not before we assign him a step on the hierarchy. I tend to think there is enough evidence that he probably did exist, even if he didn’t his life and teachings have philosophical merit. One of the more profound teachings was his disassociation from belonging to the world. “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head” would put the Nazarene maybe outside the structure. Maslow described a hierarchy of needs, not sure the story that is Jesus would belong inside a human needs model.

            Oh Death, oh death! won’t you spare me over till another year! It is this fear of death and the fear of each other that has driven us into the faith myths and religions that attempt to assuage such fears. On death, let me quote a hero of mine: “When Socrates was sentenced to death for his philosophical investigations and for blasphemy, he said, ‘well if I’m lucky, I might be able to hold conversation with other great thinkers and doubters too’. In other words the discussion of what is good, what is beautiful, what is noble, what is pure, what is true could always go on. Why is that good? Why would I like that? Because that is the only conversation worth having. And whether it goes on after I die, I do not know, but it is the conversation I want to have while I am still alive.’ Which means to me the offer of certainty, the offer of complete security, the offer of an impermeable faith that can’t give way, is an offer not worth having. I want to live my life taking risks all the time, that I don’t know anything like enough yet, that I haven’t understood enough, that I can’t know enough, that I’m always operating on the margins of a potentially great harvest of future knowledge and wisdom. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
            I urge you to look around yourselves at those that would tell you, people who would tell you that you’re dead till you believe as they do. What a terrible thing to be telling a person, that you can only live by accepting an absolute authority. Don’t think of it as a gift, think of it as a poison chalice, and push it aside however tempting it is. Take the risk of thinking for yourself, much more happiness, truth, beauty and wisdom will come your way.”

  14. Doug
    May 4, 2013 at 7:23 am

    I will get your book. Thanks. In addition to the questions above, I had a couple of observations. I believe you mention that the divorce rate is going down, leaving the impression (at least in my mind) that there is some trend toward committed stability in relationships (or more natural, healthy serial relationships?)–even as the indicators of religiosity are declining. However, it seems to me that the rate of marriage is also declining as people increasingly choose to form non-marriage relationships. What that means for society in the long run is, well, yet to be determined.

    On a related point about declining teenage/out of wedlock births, I’m not sure what to conclude about that in light of the easy access to abortion services and morning after pills. I think the societal implications of fetal abortions versus births to unwilling or ill-prepared mothers is still open for future generations to learn.

    Finally, I generally agree with your response to the “we need to procreate our way to economic and social prosperity” or, in the Mormon context, all this spirits waiting to be born. I’ve found there is no way to have a discussion about this with my conservative, fundamentalist inclined friends as they start with the sure knowledge that God is going to solve the problem at the Second Coming: End of discussion.

    • May 4, 2013 at 2:06 pm

      Hi Doug,

      Yeah, the divorce rate ticked down just a little, so it’s now just under 50% of first marriages ending in divorce. But, you’re right that the marriage rate has gone down, too. And the implications for society aren’t clear. It doesn’t seem to have caused major problems in, say, Sweden, where a far higher percentage of people aren’t marrying and are instead cohabiting than they are here in the US. But, you never know.

      Yeah, I think procreating your way to economic prosperity is short-sighted, at least until we start colonizing places off the earth (that’s my sci-fi optimism coming through). Until we have that technology and a commitment to live off-planet, I’m wary of efforts to prop up birth rates.

      • Clinton
        May 6, 2013 at 1:02 pm


        Thanks for the analyses that you ran in response to my earlier question; the question was whether religion may encourage high-SES adults to have more children. If I understood your results correctly, after controlling for a number of important demographic factors, high-SES liberals have .40 FEWER children compared to high-SES fundamentalists (Mormons included), and high-SES adults never going to church have .64 FEWER children than high-SES adults going more than once a week (easily most active Mormons). These results apply only to the top earners in the United States.

        I am not sure if you and Doug were commenting on these analyses specifically or only my related comments about whether depopulation contributes to economic decline. I am on the fence about whether increasing RAW population numbers can solve some of the social and economic problems that are faced in developed countries. What I do think is a compelling story, and also ironic, is that the most capable (most educated and highest earning) people in the United States, seemingly as they become more secularized, have fewer children (although it was cross-sectional data). I think that you are right, that it is getting harder to be a parent in the modern world, but it appears that being religious either makes it easier or encourages high-SES individuals to do this hard thing.

        GET READY FOR MY RANT: The United States is slipping in the areas of math and science education. I think this is probably more due to selection issues (more and more children unequipped for learning) rather than the commitment the nation makes to education. As a demographic category, young people are some of the least employable in the U.S. As the tax system gets more progressive, the population ages, and fewer children are born to families with significant amount of resources to invest in them, there are much larger numbers of people slipping into the “receiving government support” side of the equation and fewer making it into the “paying for government support” side of the equation, and these devastating symptoms are causing markets and governments to fail in the most secularized, supposedly “first-world” countries, including the U.S.

        REFRAMING A “MORMON STORIES PODCAST” MESSAGE: John has been showing his listeners that the “best and brightest” have been leaving the Mormon Church (i.e. religion); although he has been able to stay in. Almost invariably, the childhood experiences have been fantastic, from parents grounded in the faith, and perhaps a bit delusional, but because of it are willing to make incredible sacrifices in bearing children, teaching those children to be hardworking, and lovers of the truth—a recipe for upward mobility. Then some, or possibly many of these, become secularized, atheistic, etc… (breaking the hearts of their faithful mothers) and are less willing to give to the world what their mothers gave to the world. The hard-core atheists and the Mormons will always have this in common: they MUST proselytize!

        • May 6, 2013 at 2:16 pm


          I think about why the US is becoming a little less competitive on science and math differently. First, if you only look at wealthy Americans, their children are doing great and actually rank near the very top in science and math education. But when you include poorer and working class kids in the averages, then the US is doing pretty poor. I think knowing both of those numbers is interesting and important as it indicates the following: We still have some great educational institutions, but they are increasingly restricted only to the wealthy.

          Second, as an educator, it seems to me like there is a serious lack of motivation among many of our students. The way I try to explain this to my students is with the following scenario: For the upward-striving person in rural China, if she doesn’t work really, really hard, she may not eat, and the sacrifices her parents made will go to waste (plus her parents may not eat). Compare that to a kid raised in the US today. If she doesn’t really work that hard and doesn’t push herself in school, what’s the worst that will happen to her? She’ll end up with a lower-middle or working class job. The result is lots of kids in the US who aren’t motivated, despite having advantages.

          Now, of course, there are many kids in the US who are being raised in the equivalent of undeveloped-world poverty who are heavily motivated to escape but are limited by their resources. So, yeah, it’s complicated.

          As far as religion playing a role… I have a child who will be raised middle-class with two parents who are PhDs. He’ll have lots of advantages. But I have no intention of having as many kids as my parents did (9) or my wife’s parents did (5). Part of that is cost; there is no way I could afford to have 9 kids with my salary; even 5 would be challenging. Part of that is I am worried about population sizes and overpopulation. And part of that is I want to give my child as much attention and as many advantages as possible. So, I’m not going to have lots of kids, but the one I have will, in all likelihood, be highly educated. Religion isn’t motivating me, obviously, but neither is my lack of religion preventing me from having lots of kids. Cost, overpopulation, and my ability to raise my son with as many advantages as I can give him are the primary factors involved.

          • homer
            May 6, 2013 at 8:30 pm


            I am quite disturbed by the implications of what you just said so I am seeking some clarification. Are you arguing that in order to properly motivate kids today we need to create a society in which they and their parents worry about whether they will eat or not? If that is what the data says then that is what the data says … but I would find that to be quite a dis-heartening discovery about the nature of our world.

            I have lived in China and have found, anecdotally, that what motivates those Chinese I have met is a confidence and assurance that their hard work will be rewarded with a life better than their parents. Is it possible that a positive outlook on the future could be the reason for a more successful youth?

          • Clinton
            May 6, 2013 at 11:31 pm

            Your response is very interesting! I think it supports an affirmative to what I have been asking about the role of religion all along—whether it encourages high-SES families to have more children. I agree that we still have advantaged children at the top with heavy investments from their parents, and others at the bottom with parents who have less to give, (never mind your description about how safety nets are eroding the middle-class) but the only way that could lead to a net loss in human capital on a national level is if there are increasingly fewer advantaged children to offset children with less human capital. This is where I think religion may play a positive role for the country—even if it is a minor role. Everyone agrees that our nation is becoming more secularized, especially among the most educated, and your data showed that high-SES individuals retreating from religion invest their resources in fewer children.

            I have to be honest, I chuckled when I learned that the religious generation in your family (your parents and your wife’s parents) produced 14 PhDs (or, I assume, the functional equivalent) and that your atheist generation will produce one. I am not at all, trying to make any recommendations for your individual family on such a truly sacred and rational matter, but on a sociological level, doesn’t the retreat of High-SES families away from investment in parenting harm society? Whatever the reasons, the highly religious are still willing to make these investments; investments that can benefit everyone.

        • Mary
          June 3, 2013 at 8:22 am

          Clinton, if more Americans are slipping into the “receving side” of government support and lack the adequate resources to invest in their children, I think we need to take an honest look at why this is happening. Your “recipe for upwarding mobility” doesn’t tell the whole story. What about factors like today’s astronomical college admission costs and predatory interest rates for student loans, out-of-control healthcare costs and the difficulty in obtaining insurance, corporations outsourcing jobs to overseas sweatshops, and a stagnant minimum wage that’s almost impossible for workers to live on let alone support a family.

          • Clinton
            June 3, 2013 at 7:26 pm

            Mary, I don’t think that I was trying to outline a recipe for upward mobility, I was merely asking whether high-SES couples who are also highly religious raise more children than high-SES secular couples do.

          • Mary
            June 4, 2013 at 2:47 am

            Clinton, forgive me if I’ve misinterpreted your comments somehow. But your premise seems to be that if the people in society with wealth and resources became more religious they would have more children and that would solve the problems of poverty, government dependency, and economic crisis. But isn’t that kind of elitist? How exactly does that work? The rich keep reproducing until the poor die off? I agree that we as a society should be trying to produce more people with wealth and resources. But instead of trying to produce them by encouraging people who already have wealth and resources to have more babies, why can’t we produce them by making wealth and resources available to those who DON’T already have them? Consider the Scandinavian countries. They are among the most irreligious in the world, yet they are consistently ranked as the richest, most stable, most egalitarian, and happiest. So their success clearly does not derive from religiosity. It derives from smart social and economic policies. Yes, their birthrates are low. But they are experiencing a lot of immigration too. Presumably those immigrants, who likely arrive with less wealth and education, will benefit from their host coutries’ progressive policies and with time will assimilate and become equally prosperous contributors.

  15. May 4, 2013 at 11:46 am

    I’d like to say, since I was mentioned in the podcast, that I agree with Ryan’s characterization of the research concerning religion and happiness. Religious people report higher levels of happiness than do irreligious people, but that simple summary which I gave to John some time ago does not convey the nuance that exists in the data. And, yes, it is based primarily on data collected in the US, as Ryan points out.

  16. Mike
    May 4, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Ryan, thanks for the podcast. I really enjoyed it. A few questions:

    1. I assume that factors like economic status, level of education, physical health, (and any others I haven’t thought of) are much stronger drivers of happiness than religiosity. Can we quantify the relative effects of these different factors?

    2. To what extent can self-reported happiness statistics be skewed by the fact that in many fundamentalist religions (like Mormonism), it is more-or-less a religious requirement to be happy?

    3. I think that the religion that someone identifies in a survey is far less important than whether or not they participate regularly in or donate money to a particular religious group. Have you done any breakdowns based on these indicators?

    4. You pointed out that religiosity is decreasing dramatically in the United States, and I was hoping you could go into more detail about how we know this is the case. In particular, is there any reliable data on trends in religious donations per capita or activity rates in major religions? How does the data change when you break it down by age?

    • May 4, 2013 at 8:18 pm

      Hi Mike,

      1) Regression allows you to examine the factors you listed simultaneously and get a general sense of the relative strength of each when the others are controlled (i.e., held constant). Here’s an output from a regression that does this (the dependent variable is happiness; the independent variables are income, education, health, sex, and fundamentalism; the data are the 2012 GSS):

      When you put all of these in, income and health are significant predictors (indicated in the last column; values below .05 are considered “statistically significant,” which indicates there is a relationship that is not likely due to chance); education, sex, and fundamentalism are not. This aligns with what we know about happiness: income to a certain level matters (about $50k to $75k; after that it doesn’t really matter) and health matters. Religion doesn’t seem to make much of a difference.

      2) This suggestion isn’t all that different from what I suggest in the book: a happiness delusion. I’m reticent to go so far as to say that being happy is required in Mormonism, but it does seem like many Mormons believe: (a) Mormonism is supposed to make you happy so (b) you have to act happy. But I don’t have any rigorous data on that, so I can’t assert that with confidence. That’s my experience, and the experience of lots of other people with whom I’ve spoken, but until I have data to support it, I won’t assert it.

      3) Yeah, other indicators of religiosity are important. Many researchers like to use attendance, but I find attendance problematic because not everyone attends and those who do aren’t always representative of the religion as a whole. So, yeah, you can do these breakdowns lots of ways.

      4) You can read Chapter 26 in my book! 🙂

      If you want something now without reading my book, try the Nones Report I helped write that was released as part of the ARIS series:

      It presents some of the data on the increase of nonreligious people in the US. And, yes, young people are more likely to be nonreligious than are older people – a lot more likely. Data on that is presented in the book as well.

  17. Paul
    May 5, 2013 at 12:04 am

    With regard to Fundamentalists getting an ‘A’ in ‘Delusion 101’, Karl Marx was on the right track: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.

    A great podcast.

  18. May 5, 2013 at 4:04 pm

    One thing about this podcast… It sent my wife and I into deep reflection on whether we were happier during all those years of activity or, now that we’ve been out a year and a half, are we happier now?

    The thing is we loved the people in our stake and loved showing up to big hugs, smiles, fist bumps, high fives, and sharing stories from the week. Loved! We seriously miss that. And we loved the stake plays, teaching family relations, and some sacrament talks.

    Our first year out was sad and hard because we missed our friends and were trying to suppress thoughts that were creeping in about the General Authorities voting themselves lives of the rich & famous, and that we had been too trusting of what the church says.

    But now we feel we’ll be forever grateful for all the wonderful youth leaders who helped our kids turn out great with wonderful marriages. We were stretched, and learned to teach and serve and speak.

    But we’re pretty sure we’re happier now because we have more time for our family, and to focus on new and different causes without the overhead of temple tips, tithing settlement, 4-hour leadership meetings, etc.

    I don’t envy sociologists who have to try and compare happiness of different groups because we found it so hard to even understand our own.

    • May 5, 2013 at 4:19 pm

      Thanks for sharing, Chris!

    • May 5, 2013 at 4:34 pm

      Likewise, thanks for sharing Chris.

      The things you describe missing the most are the things that held the greatest appeal toward Mormonism for me, as well. I was very conscious of the loss of community when I decided to stop attending. Losing that was hard.

      But, and this is, of course, anecdotal, I would agree that I’m happier now that I’m out, as does my wife. My wife is the one who discusses this more often than I do. For her, the reduction in guilt and the greater acceptance of empirically based information is what makes the most difference as far as happiness goes. There is no more holding one’s self up to an impossible standard of perfection. So what if we don’t read scriptures or say our prayers (neither of which we ever do anymore, but hopefully you get the point)? So what if I try a glass of wine (and realize I don’t like it)? So what if I see someone who is attractive and think, “That person isn’t my spouse, but he/she is attractive.”? The guilt from religion is gone. And that has made a huge difference in our quality of life.

      We still feel guilt, but over completely different things. Are we spending as much time as we can with our son? Are we letting him watch too much TV? Is he too spoiled? Do we spend enough time working on our relationship? Our guilt is now guided by what matters most to us: our family. And dropping the time spent on religion means our son gets our undivided attention all weekend long, every weekend. We still care about quality of life and still have morals, they just aren’t dictated by people who know nothing about us or people who died centuries or millenia ago.

      • May 6, 2013 at 11:44 am

        Thanks, Ryan. Great response. I can’t wait to read your book.

        My wife really resonates with your comment about guilt, which I always found odd because she was one of the most active members I’ve ever known. She was always off to the hospital to visit someone sick, or making sure I got my home teaching done, or working at the cannery. I would have thought she could feel good for all that she did instead of feeling guilty for the things she couldn’t get to, like reading the scriptures enough, etc.

        I’m not sure I felt guilt in the same way, but I sure felt conflicted. As a Bishop with 3 teenaged boys at home, how do you spend all that time on tithing settlement and still be a good dad? One of the General Authorities boomed over the pulpit at a leadership conference, “Bishops, if you’re not spending 50% of your time with the young men of the ward, you’re failing at your calling.” I thought that was very powerful and it really applied to me because of my sons being so active in scouts and their quorums.

        But how do you make that happen? By counseling less? Visiting fewer people in their homes? Going to the temple less? Making your tithing settlement meetings 10 minutes instead of 15? Each time you do one of those things, there are High Councilmen, ward members and Stake Presidency members who will remind you not to cut back on those things.

        At least in your business and private lives, you can focus on things you think are critical and really nail them, instead of being pulled in so many directions that you’re like the jack of all trades but master of none.

  19. Seasickyetstilldocked
    May 6, 2013 at 10:53 am

    Why should it be surprising that sociologists put the LDS Church in the fundamentalist bucket again? While Mormonism has many intellectual and liberal members, institutionally and in practice, the Church remains a fundamentalist religion. The last time I checked the LDS Church believes or supports:

    Noahs Flood
    Tower of Babel
    Exclusive Truth
    Exclusive Authority
    Literal Prophet
    Actual Ministering of Angels
    Actual Healing by Priesthood
    Evil Spirits, Satan…
    Etc, etc, etc

    I suppose these kinds of beliefs would not matter so much if it seemed like they were not somehow major parts of the engine that drives the Church to such an abysmal human rights record. These kinds of beliefs seem to give the Church the belief that they have the authority from God to discriminate against women, blacks and homosexuals.

    Your right John, the gate of tolerance should swing both ways. However, when it comes to the LDS Church, the gate is only swinging the one true way. The Church is an institution that pretends to have the moral authority to tell homosexuals how to live their lives. How does an idea like this deserve equal tolerance? It took until 1978 for blacks to get the priesthood! 1978! It took a letter writing campaign by a bunch of members who were tired of tolerating female inequality to get a woman to pray in a Church meeting………that took place in 2013. I mean it is 2013 and a women just now prayed in conference.

    John, I can tolerate your brand of Mormonism and even learn a thing or to from it. However, I can’t tolerate the programs and policies of the Church because they don’t even support basic human rights.

    I would love to hear a discussion in the future on what kinds of pressure and tolerance have contributed to the church changing in the past. What actually gets the church to change? What kind of tolerance contributed to the church changing its policies regarding polygamy, blacks, women and homosexuals?

    Great podcast. Anybody that refers to soccer as futbol knows what they are talking about.

    • May 6, 2013 at 11:44 am

      Great comments. Thanks, Seasickyetstilldocked. And I’d love to host such a discussion for a future podcast episode. Please let me know if/how you think it should be structured.

    • Cylon
      May 6, 2013 at 7:22 pm

      Great points, Seasick. John’s comments about “atheists should be tolerant of religious fundamentalists” got on my nerves, too. It’s a complete false equivalence. Fundamentalist intolerance leads to gay people being denied equal rights, women being denied control of their own bodies, and, globally speaking, people being killed for being the wrong religion, speaking up against religious abuse, or even the simple act of going to school. Atheist intolerance leads to what? Internet arguments and jokes that offend people’s religious sensitivities? You’ll forgive me if I don’t lose too much sleep over that.

      • Clinton
        May 7, 2013 at 12:21 am


        In my humble opinion, whenever there are two (or more) sides to an issue, especially a contentious one, both sides can benefit from practicing tolerance. Even if one side is 95% correct and the other is 5% correct, each has room to improve, and progress is more likely when tolerance is practiced.

        When you wrote about “women being denied control of their own bodies” were you referring to abortion? I think this is an issue that brings out much intolerance on both sides–because there is so much at stake. The functional equivalent of abortion rights for women is not merely an “internet argument and joke” but the willing death (or some would say murder) of a child. Why couldn’t an intelligent atheist see some shred of credibility in that type of fundamentalist viewpoint? As a religious person, I would have much more respect for the atheist who says, “I understand that you feel that abortion is killing a child, but even then, I think that the rights of the mother should outweigh that, or that we should not penalize that choice.”

        When the message that comes across from an atheist is something like “believing that a fetus is a child is a wacko notion” what good can possibly come from making a statement like that? I am not saying that is what you said; I am simply trying to illustrate a point.

        In a way, I think what John is saying is that being peaceable perhaps is as important as seeking to be right all the time when it comes at the expense of others. One of the slogans from the abortion debates that I mostly disagree with, yet still greatly admire is “safe, legal, and rare.” The “rare” part captures my attention, because it represents what could be common ground on both sides of the issue. Even those who want abortion rights do not generally want to increase the number of abortions when pregnancy in the first place can be avoided. Opponents, of course, also believe the rarer the better.

        • May 7, 2013 at 6:05 am

          Beautifully put, Clinton.

        • Cylon
          May 7, 2013 at 8:35 am

          Abortion is a part of what I was getting at with my comment, but not all of it. Often those attitudes go along with a willingness to deny birth control to women and generally dictate how they should live their lives.

          But that was just a small part of my complaint, and not even necessary to my point. I was annoyed because when John complained about atheist intolerance, he completely ignored the context of what causes it. I’m all for respectful debate, but I don’t see being peaceable as being the highest priority. There are some things that do take precedence. Additionally, merely understanding someone else’s position does not automatically solve all problems. I understand perfectly well that if someone believes that God placed women on the earth to be subservient to men and that their purpose is only to raise children, then in their mind allowing women to work is a great evil. It might even land a woman in hell for all eternity, which would make it worth paying almost any price to help her avoid such a fate. Just because I can see where they’re coming from doesn’t mean I can just stand by and comply with their wishes. And in order to change someone’s opinion on certain things you have to completely change the foundation of their entire belief system, which is often impossible. When there is no common ground to be found with someone, what do you do then? Sure, you can still be polite to them, but if what they’re doing causes measurable harm to people, I feel an obligation to oppose that even if they have good intentions.

          • Clinton
            May 7, 2013 at 10:42 am

            I think you have done a good job of showing that opposition can be a virtue, just as I have tried to show that tolerance can be a virtue. Each has their place. Either one can also be a vice, and I think that the worst kind of opposition comes from those who already have the upper hand. It is hard for those in power to practice tolerance; by then it is purely an intrinsic practice which is what makes it so beautiful–at least to me. I think that the major premise for practicing tolerance is faith in that idea that there is always some common ground–even if it is small. It certainly takes work to find it!

          • May 7, 2013 at 10:49 am

            > I think that the major premise for practicing tolerance
            >is faith in that idea that there is always some common ground–even
            >if it is small. It certainly takes work to find it!

            So well said.

          • Cylon
            May 7, 2013 at 11:36 am

            I agree with your last comment, Clinton. It does take work, and I don’t want to make it sound like I oppose looking for common ground. Maybe I’m pushing back on this point because growing up I always believed the “contention is of the devil” line, and thought that any form of disagreement was automatically bad. I now feel that sometimes, contention is justified and necessary. But it’s certainly not the first thing I turn to when dealing with people I disagree with. Tolerance should be our first choice when faced with new people and situations.

  20. May 7, 2013 at 5:10 am


    I’m not suggesting we withhold food to motivate young people. I’m suggesting that it appears young people in less developed countries have GREATER intrinsic motivation than young people in the US because of the reality of their situation – they really, really want a better life than their parents (as you noted). And, for many of them, in order to get that better life they’re going to have to work extremely hard (and that may not be sufficient). That dedication often means foregoing: late nights drinking and partying, spending days at the beach or campus pool, not watching TV and movies, not doing drugs, etc. (all of which are things my students do regularly, and assume are part of being college students).

    Again, I’m not suggesting that we withhold food from our students. I’m just trying to help them realize that they are now competing with young people around the world. Alas, my meager attempts to motivate them typically fail.

  21. Pacumeni
    May 7, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    After listening to this podcast, go to the Research on Religion website and listen to Rodney Stark discussing his new book “How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists.” Stark is a respected sociologist of religion and on virtually every factual point, he contradicts Cragun. The disagreements aren’t on matters of opinion but on matters of fact. One thing this may demonstrate is a limitation of science. Studies will often show contradictory things just because sampling error exists. Five out of every 100 studies will show that there is a significant relationship between variables when in fact there isn’t one. Since social scientists have a clear incentive to massage data to get statistical significance because non-siginificant results rarely get published, the incidence of false positives is demonstrably greater than five percent. Science (and especially social science) is by no means the neutral, objective enterprise Cragun and Dehlin imply. All those false positives leave ample scope for cherry picking studies when one wants to support a rhetorical point. The flat contradictions of virtually every factual claim (with cited studies that support all the contradictory facts) demonstrate this truth. Here is the link for the Research on Religion podcast. Listen to it. The contradictory claims get close to 100% of what Cragun asserts.


    • May 7, 2013 at 3:34 pm

      I agree. Everyone should listen to Stark’s podcast, too.

      His ideas about secularization, religious economies, and Christianity have been widely refuted in the sociology of religion. As sociologists of religion like to joke, “Many people have made their careers publishing research showing how wrong Rodney Stark is.”

      He also sponsored the Baylor Survey of Religion that has been shown to be poorly designed and remarkably biased (and probably serves as the basis of his pro-Christian book referenced in your post; not sure about that since I haven’t read his book yet). It doesn’t align with any of the other major surveys in the US as far as religious affiliation or participation goes. He does a great job of showing how apologetics masquerades as legitimate social science.

      If I had more time, I’d refute every point he makes in that podcast with data. Well, actually, I already took that time. Read my book and check the data. Stark is, not surprisingly, wrong.

    • May 7, 2013 at 3:42 pm

      I’m listening to the podcast right now and I’m flabbergasted. He just claimed that the US has lower crime rates (except homicide) than does Europe. That is so false as to be laughable:

      Seriously. Pacumeni, if you want to take issue with my book or findings, try to find someone with credibility. Apologist Rodney Stark shouldn’t be your go-to guy.

      • Pacumeni
        May 16, 2013 at 12:20 am


        The link you posted generally supports Stark’s claims, not yours. For every crime listed on the linked report, including homicide, there is at least one and in most cases a number of European nations that have higher, often much higher, crime rates than the United States. Readers can check the link out for themselves. Your derisive tone–“so false as to be laughable”–and the link to a source may convince some that, surely, the facts must be on your side of the question. But folks can check the link out for themselves to see if Stark’s claims are laughably wrong or if you are, at best, over stating your case in calling his claims laughable or, at worst, are making fast and loose false statements to score rhetorical points.

        • May 25, 2013 at 9:58 am

          Stark suggested that European countries have much higher crime rates than the US. The report indicates the exact opposite. On some measures, some European countries are higher, but on all measures, the majority of European countries are lower than the US. That demonstrates that Stark was wrong. Here are the numbers:
          -homicide – US is #3; only Estonia, which is Eastern European, ranks higher
          -rape – US is #4; only Sweden ranks higher
          -robbery – US is #8; Belgium, Spain, Portugal, France, and England rank higher
          -assaults – US is #16; a variety of European countries are higher
          -burglary – US is #13; several European countries are higher
          -car theft – US is #10; Sweden, Italy, Denmark, France, and Ireland are higher

          So, the US consistently ranks near the top in crimes, despite two facts: (1) it is more religious and (2) it is more punitive (it has the highest punitivity ratio of any country included in the report).

          Stark was trying to say that US religiosity lowers crime rates. US crime rates, for all crimes, are higher than the majority of European countries, and on several are higher than all but one or two European countries. Ipso facto, Stark is wrong. Yea, “laughably wrong.”

          • Pacumeni
            May 31, 2013 at 7:28 pm

            As any competent sociologist would, Stark controls for the proportion of young males when making claims about religion and crime rates. (As I note above, the secular societies of Europe are in a demographic death spiral.) The median male age in the United States is lower–generally much lower–than that of all the European countries listed except for heavily Catholic Ireland, which is slightly younger than the US. Since the proportion of young males is powerfully correlated with crime rates, the US should have higher–generally far higher–crime rates than all the European countries except Ireland based on proportion of young males–but it doesn’t. The assault rate in Scotland is 5.7, in Sweden 3.5, in England 2.8, in Belgium 2.7, in Germany 2.4, in Finland 2.3, in Luxembourg 1.8, in Ireland and the Netherlands 1.3, and in Portugal and France 1.2 times the rate in the US. Burglary rates are higher than in the US by factors of 2.7 in Denmark, 1.8 in Austria, 1.4 in Sweden and England, and 1.2 Belgium and Switzerland. Sovenia and Northern Ireland are also higher than the US. The rape rate in Sweden is more than twice as high as that of the US, and the rates of England and Belgium are very similar in spite of the far lower proportion of young males. Vehicle thefts are substantially higher in Sweden, Italy, Denmark, France, and Ireland though it is harder to hide a stolen car in those smaller, more centrally regulated counties than in the US. For robbery, Portugal’s and France’s rate is 1.4, Spain’s 8.9, and Belgium’s 13 times greater than in the US. England is also higher than the US. Clearly, many European countries have far higher crime rates than the US despite the fact that all but Ireland should have lower rates given the powerful effects of young male demographics on crime. Stark’s claims are not laughably absurd nor are Cragun’s claims patently obvious. What is obvious to me is that Cragun’s use of numbers is rhetorical, not dispassionately and scientifically objective. Readers should understand that he sees the data through the prism of his anti-religious and especially anti-Mormon animus and selects data that support his preordained anti-religious thesis.

          • May 31, 2013 at 9:00 pm

            First, thanks for re-summarizing everything I previously posted but trying to spin it the other way.

            Second, are you sure you want to defend Rodney Stark on this? If so, go ahead and explain away these papers that find the US has higher crime rates:

            And, interestingly, this book (http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=DsN5glgW0v4C&oi=fnd&pg=PR3&dq=international+crime+rates&ots=VnxM9JrABg&sig=er_Yr-Cp4iUjm3TIgRlp9oApidw#v=onepage&q=international%20crime%20rates&f=false), which specifically focuses on crime, indicates the percentage of young males is a weaker predictor of crime rates than all of the following:
            -educational attainment
            -individual past experience in criminal activities
            -past incidence of crime in society
            -level and growth of economic activity
            -income inequality
            -existence of profitable criminal activities
            -strength of the police and the judicial system

            So, if Stark is claiming the US should have much higher crime rates because there are more young men, and the US does have higher crime rates (though Stark claims it does not), just not higher than every country in Europe in every year, what exactly have you shown?

          • Pacumeni
            June 5, 2013 at 8:42 am

            As any competent sociologist would, Stark controls for the proportion of young males when making claims about religion and crime rates. (As I note above, the secular societies of Europe are in a demographic death spiral.) The median male age in the United States is lower–generally much lower–than that of all the European countries listed except for heavily Catholic Ireland, which is slightly younger than the US. Since the proportion of young males is powerfully correlated with crime rates, the US should have higher–generally far higher–crime rates than all the European countries except Ireland based on proportion of young males–but it doesn’t. The assault rate in Scotland is 5.7, in Sweden 3.5, in England 2.8, in Belgium 2.7, in Germany 2.4, in Finland 2.3, in Luxembourg 1.8, in Ireland and the Netherlands 1.3, and in Portugal and France 1.2 times the rate in the US. Burglary rates are higher than in the US by factors of 2.7 in Denmark, 1.8 in Austria, 1.4 in Sweden and England, and 1.2 Belgium and Switzerland. Sovenia and Northern Ireland are also higher than the US. The rape rate in Sweden is more than twice as high as that of the US, and the rates of England and Belgium are very similar in spite of the far lower proportion of young males. Vehicle thefts are substantially higher in Sweden, Italy, Denmark, France, and Ireland though it is harder to hide a stolen car in those smaller, more centrally regulated counties than in the US. For robbery, Portugal’s and France’s rate is 1.4, Spain’s 8.9, and Belgium’s 13 times greater than in the US. England is also higher than the US. Clearly, many European countries have far higher crime rates than the US despite the fact that all but Ireland should have lower rates given the powerful effects of young male demographics on crime. Stark’s claims are not laughably absurd nor are Cragun’s claims patently obvious. What is obvious to me is that Cragun’s use of numbers is rhetorical, not dispassionately and scientifically objective. Readers should understand that he sees the data through the prism of his anti-religious and especially anti-Mormon animus and selects data that support his preordained anti-religious thesis.

    • May 9, 2013 at 11:30 pm

      Yikes, Rodney Stark… When I hear his name for some reason I think of Glenn Beck. Somewhere along the road they seem, at least to me, to have gone insane.

  22. Neil
    May 7, 2013 at 3:39 pm

    I listened to the interview last night. I find myself in agreement with Ryan on certain points. I have reservations about some of the things he said as well. The issues bothered me enough, that I feel compelled to write this. I was reminded of a brilliant quote from Michael Crichton as I listened to the interview:

    “But now science is the belief system that is hundreds of years old. And, like the medieval system before it, science is starting not to fit the world any more. Science has attained so much power that its practical limits begin to be apparent. Largely through science, billions of us live in one small world, densely packed and intercommunicating. But science cannot help us decide what to do with that world, or how to live. Science can make a nuclear reactor, but it cannot tell us not to build it. Science can make pesticide, but cannot tell us not to use it. And our world starts to seem polluted in fundamental ways—air, and water, and land—because of ungovernable science.”

    Ryan was seemingly in favor of abortion. Didn’t have data to support a negative societal impact of abortion. I found it interesting how he aligned progressivism with secularists, and liberal practitioners of religion. He said that these people are more on track with the universal declaration of human rights. I find some irony and conflict here. In light of the trial of the abortion doctor in Philadelphia, I think it’s fair to raise the question as to when the unborn have “rights”. There are some serious questions to be raised in our civil society about when a human being first has rights. This is a question I would pose to him, because he suggested that secularists are more concerned about rights. What about the rights of the unborn? Are late term abortions exercising the rights of those babies? I just raise the question, because I see a disconnect in the idea that progressives are the champions of “rights” in this situation, because the rights of these children, at least in the late term abortion scenarios are not a minor “nuance”, as Ryan puts it…. I would remind Ryan that Margaret Sanger, the founder of planned parenthood was an advocate of negative eugenics. That doesn’t seem like a very “tolerant” progressive stance to me. There’s some serious lines that need to be drawn here, if our society is to stay in the “tolerant” category.

    I took note of your discussion on pornography. Ryan suggested that there was no data suggesting that pornography was harmful to society, and that it could actually be beneficial. I would like to hear more information on what makes pornography consumption beneficial. I’m sure he driving at some kind of “release of sexual tension” or something. With that said, my biggest beef here is that I don’t think he’s looking at the damage caused in the production of pornography. What about the women who are subjected to these productions? Do you really think that women enjoy being objectified this way? I’ve seen interviews with women who were in the industry, and they were often sexually abused as youth, have drug problems, and often contract STDs. It’s ludicrous to suggest that pornography doesn’t harm people. I’m not suggesting it should be banned or anything, but there is no doubt that porn harms people, and it’s not just some contrived harm, manufactured by religions.

    Another point of contention is Ryan’s comments on tolerance. He said that secularists/progressives are the most tolerant of minorities etc… He included communists in the list. I find this interesting because he said that secularists/progressives/atheists are not tolerant of fundamentalists…. This just cracks me up, because I have just as much reason to believe communists to be just as dogmatic as any religious fundamentalists…. This seems like selective tolerance to me.

    Ryan where’s his political bias on his sleeve as well. The fact that he suggests that progressives are more tolerant of minorities in the first place is extremely misguided. What does he mean by this? Is he referring solely to religious context, or to a political one?

    One of the last things I wanted to point out was his talk about premarital/extramarital sex. There is a big problem with this… especially with black minorities who have 70% of their births outside of wedlock. In the political arena, so called progressives control the vote of over 90% of blacks… They also have overwhelming control over the educational system…. This suggests to me that progressives are not doing very well with their own platform. They’re either not educating the black community well on birth control, or they’ve unintentionally created a mechanism that is incentivizing blacks to have children out of wedlock.

    All in all, I take issue with academics like Ryan, because they tend to get stuck in a a dangerous paradigm. They can analyze data, but they really have a problem in diagnosing proper solutions. People that come up through the academic ranks tend to get indoctrinated into leftist/progressive ideologies. I think Ryan’s political stance was very evident, and tainted the objectivity of some portions of the interview.

    • May 7, 2013 at 4:36 pm


      Thanks for the detailed, thoughtful reply. I’ll try my best to respond to your points.

      First, abortion. I’m not in favor of abortion, but rather in favor of a woman’s right to control her fertility. I’m actually in favor of reducing abortions by increasing women’s access to birth control, as are almost all of the people who are pro-choice. Abortion should be the last option when it comes to controlling fertility, not the first.

      Your bigger issue with abortion, though, seemed to hinge on the issue of rights. I’m reticent to get into a discussion about whose rights should take precedence – an unborn fetus’s rights or the mother’s rights, as these are debates that never seem to end. So, rather than debate this, can I just say my position and we respect each other’s position? I favor the rights of the living over the rights of the potentially living. I know not everyone will agree with that. And that’s okay. But that’s where I stand. And I’m not sure the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can provide a clear answer on this issue. So, this may just be an issue where we agree to mildly disagree. (If you want to pursue this further, I’m fine with that, but I’d really rather not debate the morality of abortion. I’m a sociologist, not an ethicist.)

      Second, pornography. If I’m not mistaken I basically said in the podcast that porn is complicated, but not all bad and can even be good. Pornography is complicated by a number of factors. The type of pornography seems to matter. Why it is used seems to matter. How it is produced is also important. All of those are complications, and I get that. But the interview wasn’t really about pornography and the nuances of pornography consumption. A good summary of this research can be found here: http://www.sexscience.org/dashboard/articleImages/SSSS-Pornography.pdf

      Basically, good research on this generally finds that nonviolent pornography increases normal sexual responses. Otherwise, it doesn’t really do anything else. Violent pornography has seen mixed results – sometimes no effect, sometimes a mild effect. But, most of the research shows that viewing non-violent pornography does not change people’s views toward women and at least one study has shown that people with more egalitarian gender attitudes are more likely to watch pornography. In short, porn helps people get off, quickly, effectively, and efficiently, and does little else (again, with the violent/nonviolent caveat in place). We can debate whether or not that is good or bad, but it generally doesn’t seem to cause problems.

      Also, you mentioned porn production. I agree that it can be damaging. But there is also a lot of porn that is produced in less damaging ways. Admittedly I’m thinking about feminist pornography (e.g., http://www.feministpornography.com/synopsis.html), but not all women in porn are sexually abused and horribly mistreated. (Note: I don’t have numbers on this part. So, my argument here is a bit weaker.)

      Third, I’m not sure what you mean by “selective tolerance”. Atheists tend not to be communists, but they tolerate people who disagree with them politically. That’s not really selective tolerance. As I noted in an earlier post, the reason why atheists tend to be less tolerant of religious fundamentalists is because fundamentalists don’t want us to exist.

      Fourth, pre-marital sex. It seems like you’re singling out a weird situation here that isn’t exactly about pre-marital sex. It’s about out-of-wedlock births – and really, out of cohabiting, committed relationships births, too. What you’re suggesting in that section is that blacks have issues because they are having kids outside of committed relationships. I’m not going to disagree that anyone who has kids outside of a committed relationship is going to have problems, black or white. That’s true. But what does that have to do with pre-marital sex? If 95% of Americans are having sex before marriage and our society is not collapsing as a direct result, what’s the problem? And, FYI, I didn’t say anything about extramarital sex (at least, I hope I didn’t; I shouldn’t have). That’s a whole different can of worms that I’m not going to get into.

      Fifth, you’re probably right about the last point. I don’t have great solutions. But, I also don’t see major problems here. What’s the solution to pornography if pornography isn’t a problem? What’s the solution to premarital sex if premarital sex isn’t a problem? What’s the solution to abortion if abortion isn’t a problem? I guess, if you see these things as problems you’ll need solutions. What are your solutions to these nonproblems?

    • Mary
      June 3, 2013 at 8:56 am

      Neil, I understand what you’re getting it, and I agree with you about pornography. But some of your claims are just plain uninformed. For example, in the case of Kermit Gosenell, the abortion doctor in Philadelphia. You make it sound like progressives and pro-choice advocates approve of what he did. They don’t. Nobody does. It wasn’t even legal. Except for cases where the mother’s life or health is in danger, late-term abortions are banned in the U.S. with bipartisan support(to say nothing of delivering full-term babies and then killing them with scissors).

      Also, your statement that progressives “have control over the vote of 90% blacks” is just plain offensive. You’re implying that black people don’t have control over their own votes (i.e. opinions and ideas).

      Also, since when do progressives control public school education? I wish. Then in places like Texas maybe abstinence-only sex ed would be done away with, along with religion being taught as science and the re-writing of textbooks to eliminate mention of the founding fathers owning slaves and to downplay other social ills in our history that don’t fit a sanitized conservative narrative.

  23. a dude
    May 7, 2013 at 4:17 pm

    Thanks for all the replies Ryan.

    wonder what you think of Alain De Botton? He seems to offer a kinder treatment of religion and the religious, based not on it’s ‘truths’ but it’s utility. Thoughts? Thx!

    • May 7, 2013 at 4:49 pm

      I always like responding to “a dude”!

      Like Alain de Botton, I disagree with Christopher Hitchens that “Religion Poisons Everything.” Hitchens is well-justified to criticize religion; I criticize it, too. But blanket condemnations of religion are too simplistic.

      I think we can learn from religion and, as I point out repeatedly in my book, I think liberal religion and nonreligion can exist side-by-side. How successful de Botton will be in building social institutions that replace religion, I can’t say. Honestly, I hope he succeeds. And I do think there is merit in humanist ceremonies marking important milestones, like births, marriages, and deaths. But, as I said in the podcast, I’m not sure the future of religion is being replaced with a nonsupernatural equivalent. If we look at countries where religious observance has dropped to very close to zero (e.g., most of Western Europe), the landscape is not littered with humanist temples. It’s littered with futbol stadiums. People are building communities based on shared interests.

      A good example… I love to hike. During a trip last summer to England for a conference I convinced my wife to let me stay over a few days to go hiking in Scotland. While the trip itself was amazing – everyone should go hiking in the Scottish highlands – what was even more amazing was the number of Europeans I met on my hikes. There were a fair number of Brits, but almost all of the people hiking with me were Germans, Swedes, Austrians, Italians, Spaniards, etc. They weren’t visiting churches or secular temples. They were visiting “natural temples.” They were recreating. They were spending their time in relaxing, pleasant pursuits with friends and family.

      So, while I value the work of people like Alain de Botton and am sincerely interested to see what comes of it, I’m not convinced that is what will “replace” religion. I think some ceremonies will pop up to mark important milestones and then we’ll find community and companionship based on shared interests. My two bits. I could be wrong, but that’s what seems to have happened in Western Europe.

  24. JT
    May 8, 2013 at 7:18 am


    I don’t check in at MS very often these days, but I am glad I did. Thanks to you and John for this interview!

    And thanks also for making your papers (an wiki-books) so accessible from you website.

    I have been reading the research of Will Gervais and Ara Norenzayan on the psychology of anti-atheist prejudice and the origins of religious disbelief and I see some of your work complements that.

    I’ll also look forward to reading your new book which seems to complement Phil Zuckerman’s and Luke Galen’s recent (and joint upcoming) work.

    This all strikes me as a positive and productive follow-up to the “New Atheist” polemics – whose lasting value may be in how they paved the way for, and then gave way to, a deeper and more broadly accessible naturalistic understanding of religious belief and non-belief.

    Best wishes,


    • May 8, 2013 at 7:45 am


      Glad you liked the podcast.

      Seems like you’re pretty familiar with the other scholars doing work in this field. Gervais and Norenzayan are doing some of the most innovative work in this area. And Galen and Zuckerman both wrote blurbs for my book!

      I agree that the “new atheists” probably paved the way for a new wave of more nuanced work on nonreligion that is less hostile and more scientific. There’s a lot of interest in this area and it doesn’t seem to be waning. Good time to be studying the nonreligious!

    • Cylon
      May 8, 2013 at 9:30 am

      JT, you may have already seen this, but here’s a presentation Luke Galen did on the results of some surveys he did on the nonreligious a few years ago. http://doubtreligion.blogspot.com/2009/02/episode-32-profiles-of-godless.html.

      Also, he’s a regular co-host on the Reasonable Doubts podcast and often talks about his sociology work, there’s lots of good stuff there.

      • JT
        May 8, 2013 at 10:42 am


        Thanks for the link. I listen to Reasonable Doubts occasionally and now remember this episode – and now I that have the slides I’ll give it another listen.

        Perhaps you remember a funny bit one of the panel did imitating Carl Sagan’s voice to portray a “Bizarro world” fundamentalist preacher delivering his version of Sagan’s Cosmos narration.


        • Cylon
          May 10, 2013 at 12:10 am

          Yeah, I definitely remember that one. Strangely enough, I got a weird sense of sacrilege when I heard Carl Sagan’s voice talking about creation science and stuff. It was eerie.

  25. JT
    May 8, 2013 at 9:32 am

    I found the discussion of contemporary demon-belief fascinating. My memories of the movie The Exorcist as a 12 year old are among my most vivid. I remember not being able to listen to the theme music, Tubular Bells, for months – which was tough because it came up on the radio so often. I think what made The Exorcist so disturbing was my identification with the possessed child and the feeling of vulnerability that evoked.

    Recently while flipping through a General Conference Ensign I found a talk in which “Satan and his minions” played a prominent role. I don’t see how this differs from demon-belief, except that contemporary Mormonism may present in a light enough manner that members can tacitly brush it off as soon as they step out of the chapel and back into their normal everyday lives.

    Is Satan-speak still common at the ward level? My guess is that the church leadership knows not to lay it on too hard. My guess is that they are sensitive about crossing a line into the embarrassingly ridiculous or overtly manipulative. Perhaps the broader demographic of Mormonism, at least relative to some backwater evangelical congregations, demands a softer peddling of Satan. It might be interesting to statistically analyze of the frequency of the word Satan in church publications as a function of time.

    And yet Satan remains embedded in the LDS belief system. To me this is the most pathetic feature of any religion that claims certainty in it interlocking revealed supernatural propositions. They can’t discard worn out ideas without losing the coherency that made its worldview so compelling at the start. This seems to leave members facing a cognitive dissonance that must be resolved by repression, disaffection, or retrenchment into a deeper fundamentalism. Perhaps this is a main driving force behind the proliferation of religious sects across the liberal-fundamentalist spectrum. Perhaps Mormonism is unique in being able maintain that spectrum within a single institution. If so, what are the forces that accomplish this? And will they continue to hold?

    • May 8, 2013 at 9:50 am


      Ask and you shall receive. 😉

      That’s a graph of the frequency of occurrence of the word “Satan” in General Conference talks from 1897-2013. Looks like it was big in the 1970s, right when The Exorcist took off. Has definitely died down since then.

      • Clinton
        May 8, 2013 at 10:10 am

        The changes could be a change in the vernacular terms being used. I wonder what this graph would look like if you included synonyms like “adversary” etc.

        Remember “old scratch”? 🙂

        • JT
          May 8, 2013 at 7:36 pm

          Never heard that one … but you inspired me to look for others. The top hit on a Google search for “Satan nicknames” turned was the following LDS related site!


          Poor old scratch didn’t make the list. Perhaps I’ll send it in. 🙂

        • May 9, 2013 at 6:15 am

          Here’s the figure with the following words – satan, adversary, devil, and lucifer:

          Looks the same. So, yeah, Mormons were influenced by The Exorcist, too. 😉

      • JT
        May 8, 2013 at 10:52 am

        Excellent …thanks.

      • Blake
        May 9, 2013 at 1:04 am


        How much work did it take to put that graph together!?

        I have always wanted to do this with terms like “Joseph Smith” and “Book of Mormon” to see if the foundation of the faith is being discussed less as history is more exposed.

        (Would also like to see “church is true” or “true church”)

        Any way to do this without copying and pasting all talks?

        • May 9, 2013 at 6:08 am

          Building the “corpus” (all of the talks) took quite a while – several days worth of work. But I have software that pulls the words out. So, now, it’s pretty easy to generate these graphs (maybe 5 minutes). Here’s what I found with “church” and “true” within 5 words of each other:

          I’m not the only person with this ability. A professor at BYU put something similar together that is publicly available:

          • Blk
            May 9, 2013 at 7:56 pm

            That’s awesome. Thanks for showing me that!

          • May 12, 2013 at 1:12 pm

            Wow, that’s amazing!

  26. Travis
    May 10, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Thank you for this interesting podcast. I will be buying your book. I also found most fascinating the comment made of the exorcism movie and its influence on religion/western culture. It made me reflect on how uncomfortable I have always been with the concept of satan/devils. I grew up LDS, so I struggled to understand how God could punish me for sins I did while being influenced by an unseen devil. And then that also led to questions concerning a God that would let me be controlled by devils/satan. I’m not talking about head-spinning control, but more the invisible influence of an outside evil that would bring me to fib to my mother.

    Ryan, I wonder if you have any insight to the opinions of religious people concerning devils? I imagine that fundamentalists believe in the reality of devils as strongly as they believe in the reality of God. But I wonder if liberal Christians who still believe in the reality of God still believe as strongly in the reality of devils? Do the liberally religious believe less in devils than their fundamentalist counter-parts? While I can see the difference in biblical interpretation (literal vs non-literal)as a clear distinction between the two, I wonder if the perception of Satan/devils is also strikingly different between religious categories.

    Thank you, John for this podcast. Really enjoyed it. I am no longer LDS, but it is thoughtful initiatives like this that make me a better person; more thoughtful in my appraisal of religion.

    • May 10, 2013 at 7:10 pm

      Hi Travis,

      I was pretty sure liberally religious individuals would be less likely to believe in the devil, but I checked the GSS to make sure:

      They are. They are about half as likely to “definitely believe in the devil.” The GSS doesn’t include a question about demonic possession, so belief in the devil will have to work as an approximation.

  27. Ben
    May 14, 2013 at 12:03 pm

    I liked the podcast. Except for the fact that sociologist often include what should be outcomes as controls (controlling for health behaviors when examining health…..). This due to their rather careless approach causality. If we are throwing causality at the window, discussion of decompositions would be really useful.

  28. RayG
    May 14, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    Maybe I was in a bad mood when I listened to this, but I found Ryan’s bias to be quite hard to stomach. I realize I am biased in the opposite direction, but he seems to give excessive toleration to secularism, while scorning the fundamentalists whenever possible. Case in point, and the only place John really pushed back, in the matter of hating. Secularists don’t really hate that many people, Dawkins debated a minister and said he like him, so Dawkins is a great guy, but that minister, what a closed minded bigot.

    Secularists are more humble because they admit when they don’t know something, whereas the religious claim to know there is a God, the fools. Never mind that Dawkins thinks life was seeded on earth by aliens, and he’s the most pompous jerk you could ever listen to. You can have Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens, I’ll take Monson and Eyring, or the Pope, or Billy Graham any day. Guess we have a different idea of humility.

    Theist’s charity doesn’t really count because it’s a “membership,” whereas secularists donate because of their goodness, never mind their names being listed as donors and the tax write-offs they get. Everyone donates to causes they want to be associated with or think they will benefit from, yet only for religious folks is that a negative.

    According to Ryan there is absolutely nothing wrong with porn or pre-marital sex, yet there is plenty of data, religious and otherwise, indicating otherwise. The same day as this, I happened to listen to MS episode 390 on mental health issues, discussing porn. Lots of data there indicating porn has a terrible impact on our culture, but it was a mormon that shared the data, so it must be made up.

    I understand there are great atheists and lousy believers, but it seems the secularist’s idea of comparison is to take their best and compare to our worst. The crusades show how bad religion is, and Steven Hawking never killed anyone, so it must be faith is bad.

    Atheists condemn the religious for being intolerant and hating of gays because we think marriage is about more than just simply loving another person, yet who runs off and gets a lawyer any time a cross shows up in a public place, or a high school student puts a scriptural reference on a football poster.

    I think Ryan tries hard, and I’m impressed by all his replies to people who’ve comment, but I have a hard time thinking he’s any different than all of the people he’s criticized. He just bats from the other side of the plate.

    All in all, I think the issues Ryan is critical of are human issues that show up in the different faith systems, not necessarily a consequence of them. Just my thoughts.

    John, surprised you didn’t push back more. Many times I thought you’d push back a little, but you just let him go on. Not sure if it was a matter or time, or if you agreed with the point, but it surprised me. Looking forward to you having some conservatives on (I’m sure you’ll push back more then).

    • May 25, 2013 at 10:05 am

      RayG, I think you’ve missed the nuance throughout the interview. I repeatedly said things like, “this is a characteristic where religion doesn’t matter” or “porn isn’t all bad” or “that’s complicated.” Based on your description of the interview, you make it seem as though all I said throughout was, “religion = bad” and “nonreligion = amazingly awesome, perfect, and good.” That’s simply not true. The whole point of my book is to illustrate that this is far more complicated than just either/or comparisons. If I wanted to make either/or comparisons, I would have examined just fundamentalists and the nonreligious, but I didn’t. I included religious moderates and liberals. And, not surprisingly, they fall in-between the two extremes on most things.

      In your response you actually seem to take a fundamentalist perspective, depicting everything as black and white. That’s precisely what I don’t want people to do. Life is full of shades of gray. Being religious doesn’t automatically make someone bad or good; neither does being nonreligious.

      • RayG
        May 29, 2013 at 10:01 am


        Maybe I’ll have to listen again, but my frustration was not the nuance, but the bias. After classifying mormonism of being fundamentalist, you are very critical of that position, while being quite generous and forgiving to the liberal religious and non-relligious.

        I would describe myself as fundamentalist, but I don’t think I take everything as black and white, though I guess that is open to interpretation by those debating the point. I think many times liberals feel conservatives are only being open minded or flexible when we accept liberal arguments and opinions as our own. Conservatives can still be open minded while disagreeing.

        I agree that good and bad is not dependent on religiosity or lack thereof, though in the discussion with John the tone seemed to be that only liberal believers and atheists actually used their ability to think in any significant way.

        • May 29, 2013 at 1:20 pm


          I reticent to mention this, but there is some evidence that conservatives and fundamentalists actually don’t think the same way as other people and are more likely to believe things that are not true. The evidence on this is growing and is quite fascinating. Here’s a good book summarizing the literature that is very accessible: http://www.amazon.com/Republican-Brain-Science-Science-Reality/dp/1118094514

          I don’t mention this to be demeaning or belittling at all. Honestly, I’m surprised that this is true as I long thought that progressives and conservatives just interpreted things differently and it was my own bias that was on display. But the science really does suggest that conservatives and fundamentalists literally think differently, and how they think results in them holding more erroneous beliefs. Pretty fascinating, actually!

          • RayG
            June 1, 2013 at 12:07 am

            Ryan, my guess is that I could find a few educated people willing and able to refute a book that is written by a liberal criticizing conservatives. I agree that we think different, though I don’t think it’s brain structure or DNA.

            In the past hundred years progressives have praised communists and Nazi’s, honored fools like Paul Ehrlich, Rachel Carson, Margaret Sanger, and Al Gore, feared global cooling and heterosexual aids, predicted catastrophic depopulation, banned DDT, blamed global warming on human CO2 emissions (yet not a single climate model has accurately predicted temperature increases or lack thereof for the past dozen years), and many other things. The common thread to all these crises and movements is the need and drive for more powerful governments, something progressives seem hellbent on achieving.

            Are liberals correct sometimes? Yes. Are conservatives? Yes, but each side cherry puts blinders on and refuses to see what the other side is saying. I may have blinders on, but at least I admit it, something I rarely hear from the other side.

          • June 1, 2013 at 5:49 am

            Ray, you may be able to find some people willing to write such a book. But would it be based on hundreds of studies in social psychology that find differences in the thinking and in the actual brains of conservatives and liberals?

            Seriously, read that book. Or, at least read some research on this topic:

          • RayG
            June 1, 2013 at 8:12 am

            Ryan, Chris Mooney is and english major who works for The Center for American Progress, probably the most left wing organization in America. My guess is he wasn’t particularly unbiased in the data he selected. And social psychology might not be the most rigid science in the world. Lots of nuance and interpretation and experiments based on questionable methods there.

            There may well be differences in the way we think, but I maintain the conservatives are no more or less likely to be idiots and fools than progressives. Conservatives may be prone to resisting change, but progressives are prone to wanting to run everyone else’s lives.

          • June 3, 2013 at 7:21 am


            I didn’t say that conservatives are less intelligent. What I said, and what Chris Mooney says (and what the science says) is that conservatives are more prone to “motivated reasoning,” or looking for information to confirm their pre-existing beliefs. And if you’re going to just go ahead and dismiss entire domains of scientific inquiry by claiming “it’s not the most rigid science in the world,” well, then I’m not sure what more I can say. You could try to read it, but if you don’t value science as an epistemology, then there this discussion is kind of done. I won’t accept any other epistemology.

            And since you keep pushing, I guess I can engage in your taunts about progressives wanting big government and trying to run everyone else’s lives. That’s simply not true. Conservatives are the ones trying to restrict what people can do sexually, who people can marry (progressives didn’t push through all the constitutional amendments at the state level banning same-sex marriage), and whether or not women can control their fertility. Yes, progressives want large corporations to have more regulation to prevent them from polluting, but they generally don’t care if one, two, ten, or 1,000 people get together to have an orgy, so long as they are all consenting adults. Progressives want greater rights for minorities, not fewer. And that doesn’t mean fewer rights for whites or heterosexuals or men, just equal rights for everyone else. So, please stop with the ridiculous comments about how I want to run your life. I’m not interested in running your life. Just stay out of mine.

          • RayG
            June 3, 2013 at 9:12 pm

            Ryan, this is my last comment and I’ll stop, but I’m honestly not trying to be a jerk. I like science, think it’s great and very important. I don’t think social Psychology is as rigid a science as, say, physics, or chemistry, or even astronomy. Lots of good things can be learned, but I think a lot of interpretation could take place by how the experiments are structured, the participants, the biases of the experimenters, etc.. Mooney is as unbaised as Anne Coulter, and I doubt you’d put much weight in anything she wrote, even though she might back her stuff up with facts and studies and interviews.

            The only point I’m trying to make is that a person can be conservative and still have intellectual merit, and that being liberal doesn’t inoculate a person or group from making big intellectual mistakes. Maybe your nuance is too subtle for me.

            On the political issues, fertility issues are completely within a woman’s control, but killing the unborn goes beyond that, and don’t take my money to pay for your birth control. I’m completely for equal rights, but “minority rights” by definition aren’t equal (when whites drop below 50%, do we get special “minority rights? I hope not). Orgy for all you want, just do it in private. For all but 10 of the last 7,000 years gay marriage wasn’t even a blip on anyone’s radar, making such a radical change with so little history might be worth slowing down a bit. If regulation were only about pollution, great, but it goes way beyond that.

            Anyway, good luck with your book, and thanks for the discussion. I appreciate and admire how much time and energy it takes to write, let alone always stopping to jump back into message boards to reply to anonymous posters.

  29. Heather
    May 31, 2013 at 4:07 pm

    Very much enjoyed this podcast! I left the Mormon church almost 2 years ago and now consider myself to be agnostic/atheist. It has not been an easy transition for a lot of reasons. I try not to have hard feelings towards the church but that’s not easy. I’m mad that I was raised in the Mormon church (at times). I can see how that has negatively influenced my life. I wasn’t encouraged to pursue an education. I was lead to believe that women should never work outside the home. I was taught not to question or think for myself; anything that wasn’t making sense to me was my fault and was probably due to a lack of obedience in some way. While I know now that that’s not true, it’s already deeply part of who I am and it’s hard to overcome. I feel lied to and betrayed in a lot of ways. It’s really hard to come to terms with all that! Not to mentioned maintaining healthy relationships with my still-Mormon family members.

    I can’t remember the exact wording you used, Ryan, but when you mentioned that non-religious people are accepting of everyone but fundamentalists (in general), I was really able relate. It’s something I constantly struggle with. I want to be accepting of everyone! But, for example, when I speak with my gay uncle and hear of the things he went through when he left the church nearly 15 years ago, I feel so enraged that I can’t help but blurt out how much I hate Mormons. But of course that’s not true! Some of my best friends are true and literally believing Mormons. It’s a difficult balance.

    Anyway–really enjoyed this! Thanks to John and Ryan for putting it together.

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