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Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

My background is as a statistician.  That makes me very interested in some of the numerical studies the church reports and uses.

Low temple divorce rate

Direct from the official LDS Newsroom:

“According to research cited in a 2000 article in the Los Angeles Times, “in an era of divorce, Mormon temple weddings are built to last,” with only a 6 percent divorce rate. Another study, published in 1993 in Demography Magazine, concluded that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who marry in one of the Church’s temples are the least likely of all Americans to divorce.”

These are two very precise, misleading statements by the church.  It’s not stating that the 6% divorce rate is a fact.  It’s stating that a study claims that number.  But it knows exactly what it is doing: the overwhelming majority of people who read that will conclude that it’s true and that the church claims it.  So let’s examine both statements.

First, here is the LA Times article.  An astute observer will notice that Mr. Lobdell makes the 6% claim from a single study.  That study was paid for by the church, as it was done by BYU professor Daniel K. Judd.  Second, Lobdell claims:

“…Only 6% of those who undergo the demanding temple marriage break up.”

That’s different than the church’s claim in a very significant way, which just goes to show how easy it is to misinterpret a statistical study.  Instead of a 6% “divorce rate”, Lobdell is claiming it’s a 6% “break up” rate. So let’s examine some the important problems with the study and why it is indefensible for the church to have used it:

  • Judd’s numbers came from a 1981 study.  That’s quite a long time ago.
  • The data was obtained by taking a voluntary response sample, something real statisticians try to avoid like the plague.
  • The response rate was relatively high (81%), but 15% of that was not from the persons but from their Bishop who may not have had accurate data.
  • Of the missing 19%, 4% refused to answer, 1% had died or had officially left the Church, and about 14% didn’t respond (which in religious studies tends to mean they didn’t self-identify as that religion anymore)
  • The temple divorce numbers count as married those who got a civil divorce but not a temple divorce.  Legally, these people are no longer married.  No other church’s divorce rates are calculated in that manner, giving a gigantic boost to the supposedly low LDS divorce rate
  • Getting a temple divorce is a rather difficult, lengthy process and many simply avoid it and get a civil one
  • If a person gets a temple sealing, then a civil divorce without a temple divorce, and gets sealed in the temple to someone else, no temple divorce is counted

Obviously, the study is extremely flawed and calculating divorce rates based on temple divorces and comparing to other Americans as the church did, is a deceitful tactic based on terrible statistical analyses.   To further complicate things, the church is quoting an article that uses as its only source of data a study paid for by the church and performed by one of its employees.  It’s against pretty much every code of ethics that statisticians have.

Most professional, unbiased studies conclude that Mormons have a divorce rate of about 24%.  That’s lower than Baptists and many Protestant religions, but higher than Catholics and Lutherans.

Another interesting way to approach the 6% figure is with some math.  Let’s assume for a minute that the 6% figure and the 24% figure are accurate.  Since the 24% figure includes both temple and non-temple Mormon marriages and roughly 40% of LDS marriages are in the temple, we can do a bit of math to figure out what the divorce rate is for non-temple Mormon marriages.  The calculated rate is ((.24-.4*.06)/.6) and it comes out to 36%, well above the average for any other major Christian religion.  It’s quite obvious that the 6% figure is nowhere close to the actual truth and I highly doubt the church statisticians believe it themselves.

Second fastest growing religion in the US

Gordon B. Hinckley, The New Yorker:

“[T]his is the fastest-growing religious element in the United States and in the world, almost.”

The church frequently proclaims that it is one of the fastest growing religions in the world.  When members hear this, it apparently reinforces their belief that it is the one true church and will eventually become a major force in the world.  Direct from the official LDS Newsroom:

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the second-fastest growing church in the United States, according to the 2006 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches, published by the National Council of Churches.

It’s important to note two things here.  First, the name of the article in big bold letters is “Church Is the Second-Fastest Growing Religion in the United States”.  Again, most people who read it and don’t probe considerably farther will just take it as true.  Second, it’s very careful to simply quote another study and leave it at that.  If it is found to be that the study is wrong, the church can just claim that’s the case.

The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) performed a study in 2001.  These are just the Christian results:

Religion 1990 2001 Increase
Catholic 46,004,000 50,873,000 11%
Presbyterian 4,985,000 5,596,000 12%
Pentecostal/Charismatic 3,191,000 4,407,000 38%
Mormon/Latter-Day Saints 2,487,000 2,787,000 12%
Churches of Christ. 1,769,000 2,593,000 46%
Seventh-Day Adventist. 668,000 724,000 5%
Assemblies of God 660,000 1,106,000 68%
Congregational/United Church of Christ . 599,000 1,378,000 130%
Church of God 531,000 944,000 77%
Orthodox (Eastern) 502,000 645,000 28%
Evangelical 242,000 1,032,000 326%
Mennonite. 235,000 346,000 47%
Church of the Brethren. 206,000 358,000 73%
Nondenominational Christian 195,000 2,489,000 1176%
Disciples of Christ. 144,000 492,000 242%
Reformed/Dutch Reform 161,000 289,000 80%
Apostolic/New Apostolic 117,000 254,000 117%
Quaker 67,000 217,000 223%
Full Gospel 51,000 168,000 229%
Christian Reform 40,000 79,000 97%
Foursquare Gospel 28,000 70,000 150%

So for that 11 year period, not only did 3 Christian religions add more numbers, percentage increases were far higher for all but a few other religions.  Astute observers will point out that the church had more members in 1990 and 2001 than the study shows.  But the study was performed in an intelligent manner: by identifying which religion a person actually claimed to be a part of.  The LDS church has about 30-40% activity rate and no doubt many previous members no longer consider themselves part of the church.  But since the LDS church has an incredibly difficult and lengthy process to get your named removed from its records, most don’t bother.

However, it is also interesting to take a look at the official growth numbers that the church itself reports.  Wikipedia does a great job with them.  So the church growth rate is outpacing the world growth rate.  No surprise, considering its gigantic missionary force and high birth rate.  But take a look at the percentages:

Year Total Growth Percent
1989 7,308,444 587,234 8.74%
1990 7,761,179 452,735 6.19%
1991 8,089,848 328,669 4.23%
1992 8,404,087 314,239 3.88%
1993 8,689,168 285,081 3.39%
1994 9,024,368 335,200 3.86%
1995 9,338,859 314,491 3.48%
1996 9,692,441 353,582 3.79%
1997 10,071,783 379,342 3.91%
1998 10,354,241 282,458 2.80%
1999 10,752,986 398,745 3.85%
2000 11,068,861 315,875 2.94%
2001 11,394,522 325,661 2.94%
2002 11,721,548 327,026 2.87%
2003 11,985,254 263,706 2.25%
2004 12,275,822 290,568 2.42%
2005 12,560,869 285,047 2.32%
2006 12,868,606 307,737 2.45%
2007 13,193,999 325,393 2.53%
2008 13,508,509 314,510 2.38%
2009 13,824,854 316,345 2.34%
2010 14,131,467 306,613 2.22%

Notice a trend?  Not only has the percentage growth declined rapidly, the actual growth has also declined.  There was a reported increase of 306,613 in 2010.  There was a bigger increase in 16 of the previous 21 years.  But you won’t find the church mentioning that in the Newsroom.

I did find it funny that the church put out a second news bulletin trumpeting the same broken growth study, but added this disclaimer at the end:

However, despite its increasing numbers, the Church cautions against overemphasis on growth statistics. The Church makes no statistical comparisons with other churches and makes no claim to be the fastest-growing Christian denomination despite frequent news media comments to that effect. Such comparisons rarely take account of a multiplicity of complex factors, including activity rates and death rates, the methodology used in registering or counting members and what factors constitute membership. Growth rates also vary significantly across the world.

Informed members of the LDS church will have to make do with a basic belief that it is the one, true church rather than a belief supported by tremendous growth.  There is some significant data that shows the activity rate inside the church is declining.  If that’s true, it’s entirely possibly that in terms of active church members, the church is shrinking rather than growing.  Certainly the statistics seem to show that the replacement rate (new converts compared to people leaving) is negative.  Basically, the church’s growth at this point is because of two main factors: Mormons have lots of children and the church makes it very difficult to leave in an official manner.

Straight up lies

The church reported in 1974 that the membership was 3,385,909.  The next year, they reported it had risen to 3,572,202, an increase of 186,293.  It also reported 95,412 convert baptisms and 79,723 new children of record (baptized children) for a total of 175,135.  See the problem?  They had 175k new members, but total membership increased by 186k.  Apparently, there were negative deaths, excommunications, and voluntarily name removals!  Amazing!  There must have been quite a few priesthood blessings that year raising people from the dead!

In case you thought that was just an honest mistake or an anomaly, the same thing happened again in 1998 and 1999.  The church, following its protocol of financial secrecy, doesn’t report how it actually calculates its numbers.  But from analyzing the data, it appears that it does the following:

  • In 1982, it started inflating its membership numbers by counting children who had been blessed but not yet baptized or were under the age of 7 and “joined” with their convert parents.  Basically, it states that you become a member through baptism, but it actually brags about numbers that include unbaptized children.
  • Inactive members are counted as members in the membership numbers, even if they have been inactive for 80 years or joined another church
  • Deaths of inactive or out of contact members are not counted until the record shows they would be 110 years old.  So if Molly turns 25 and decides to stop going to church and then dies the next day, the church would still count her as a member for 85 years.
  • Until 1988, there was no way to voluntary remove your membership records.  Technically, there still isn’t.  Since the church is actually a corporation, it treats member information as intellectual property.  If you are excommunicated or voluntarily have your name removed, they still keep your record but simply remove you from the ward list.

Next Step: Sexism

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