How Many Mormons “Just Believe" In Their Church's Teachings?

12/03/2017 01:29 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2017
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One of the most significant trends in American religion today is the growth of the “Nones” and the slow but steady secularization of American society. This puts the topic of religious belief on the agenda in most religious organizations. While adherents of all religions vary in the extent of their orthodoxy and orthopraxy, small religions like Mormonism especially depend on the firmness of belief of their members to maintain social cohesion and vitality. Mormons in particular have a reputation for their conviction. On the first Sunday of every month members of Mormon congregations are invited to share with each other a brief statement of their commitment and assurance of the truthfulness of their faith. It is easy to assume that, as a popular Broadway musical claims, “Mormons just believe!”

But how many Mormons don’t “just believe?” The 2016 Next Mormons Survey (NMS) canvassed American Mormons with a variety of questions about their degree of belief in Mormon doctrines and practices. For the first time, we are able to quantitatively and systematically assess the degree of belief and doubt in American Mormonism.

The NMS asked each self-identified Mormon respondent to answer the following question:

Which statement comes closest to your own views—even if none is exactly right?

  • 49.1% “I believe wholeheartedly in all of the teachings of the LDS Church.”
  • 33.9% “I believe many or most of the teachings of the LDS Church.”
  • 12.2% “Some of the teachings of the LDS Church are hard for me to believe.”
  • 3.1% “Many or most of the teachings of the LDS Church are hard for me to believe.”
  • 1.8% “I do not believe in the teachings of the LDS Church.”

Here we see that roughly half of American Mormons are strong believers in the doctrines of their religion. Another third are generally consistent believers. The remaining 17% express at least a moderate degree of doubt about their church’s teachings. This is about one in every six of all American Mormons.

Might this 17% simply be inactive members who have distanced themselves to some degree from their faith community? Not entirely. Among Mormons who say they attend church at least once a week (74% of all Mormons in our survey), 9% expressed some degree of doubt. Among those who say they are “very active” (55% of all Mormons), 6% expressed a degree of doubt. Even among those who are current “temple recommend” holders (a subgroup of active Mormons who pass an interview with an ecclesiastical leader in which the individual is required to affirm belief in core Mormon doctrines, about 52% of all Mormons), 4% expressed at least a degree of doubt in LDS church teachings.

While these numbers may be small, it is significant that one out of every ten Mormons sitting in the pews each week expresses skepticism in their church’s teachings. In absolute numbers, this represents somewhere in the ballpark of a quarter of a million active, practicing Mormons in the United States who are uncertain of their beliefs in LDS Church teachings.

Our survey revealed many other interesting patterns in Mormon belief:

  • Mormon “Doubters” are not characterized so much by their demographic status, but rather the composition of their social networks. Those with more childhood friends or close friends who left the Mormon Church are more likely to express doubt than those with friendship circles who remained “in the fold.”
  • Attending seminary for Mormon youth is correlated with a significant decrease in expressing doubts later in life, even after statistically controlling for a host of other important factors.
  • A majority of Mormon Doubters express belief in God, the afterlife, Jesus Christ, and a literal resurrection but are far less certain about the nature of God, the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith and contemporary Mormon leaders, the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and the exclusivity of Mormon priesthood authority to dispense salvific ordinances.
  • Mormon Doubters tend to appreciate the community aspect of the LDS Church more than “Believers.” They also appreciate the Church’s focus on children and youth more than Believers. Despite this, they are much less confident about their long-term prospects of remaining affiliated with the Mormon Church than are Believers.

There is much more that the NMS revealed about patterns of belief and doubt in contemporary American Mormonism. A comprehensive analysis entitled “’Infected With Doubt’: An Empirical Overview of Belief and Non-Belief in Contemporary American Mormonism,” coauthored by me and Jana Riess, is featured in this fall’s issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought and can be purchased here.

We hope these survey results will be of use to Mormon laity and clergy alike as they think about how to best minister to members who often feel out of place in a religious community that puts an extremely high premium on certitude. At the same time, Mormons should be pleased to see that a strong majority of their members are firm in their convictions and are, on average, much more likely to express belief in the teachings of their church than adherents of many other American religious traditions.

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