Jim Bennett, son of late US Senator from Utah, wrote a reply to the CES Letter in 2016.
Jim is an incredibly witty, entertaining, and talented writer. Not only were the answers helpful, but it was a joy to read, given Jim’s wonderful style.
Many of us know Latter-day Saints who have recently struggled with their faith, especially when unprepared and facing down a huge list of criticisms and unfamiliar context.
Drinking from a critic’s fire hose isn’t a good idea. It’s best to get help and to see a line-by-line response to critics’ claims. Jim provides helpful answers and insights for those sincerely seeking answers.
Jim updated his response here to this anti-Mormon PDF and released the update today.
To review other scholars’ responses click here. The answers to LDS critics are scholarly, fair, exonerating, and voluminous.
Dan Peterson shares the sad story of a young man who left the Church and later took his life. Dan points out positives associated with faith.
Peterson quotes Bertrand Russell’s dreary thoughts about the pointlessness of life.
“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave;
that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.
Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”
The best solution to lack of faith and despair is a return to faith and hope.
Among other things, Peterson shared research by Harvard scholars and compared C.S. Lewis’ life to Freud’s. They correlated better mental health with faith and church attendance.
Latter-day Saints do well, according to Pew Research data in 2013:
This article below points out that counties with higher percentages of LDS folks in ID and UT (Eastern ID, SLC, Provo, etc) tend to have lower percentages of suicides than counties in ID and UT (Carbon County, UT, for example) with lower percentages of LDS folks.
This is not scientific proof that some LDS youth don’t commit suicide because of LDS teachings. But it does demonstrate that certain variables (not completely identified) appear to lower the suicide rate in LDS-dense counties vs. less-LDS-dense counties.
This article was written in response to another in which Utah’s LDS population was linked to Utah’s suicide rate. A rate which is lower than in several surrounding states, all of which have lower LDS population composition.
“it becomes clear that many of the counties in Utah with the highest percentage of Latter-day Saints also exhibit some of the lowest rates of suicide in Utah.
Carbon County, one of the four counties with the lowest percentage of Latter-day Saints, has the highest rate. Idaho suicide data seems to run contrary to the story’s evident thesis, at least in part.
Public Health District 7, which includes eastern Idaho counties with the state’s highest proportion of Latter-day Saints, has Idaho’s lowest suicide rate….”
“Even one suicide is too many, and none of this information discounts what LGBT Latter-day Saints share. We acknowledge the unique challenge it often is for LGBT members to deal with these issues and that some people have been unkind. We should respond with care to our LGBT friends when dealing with complex religious and emotional matters.
We should also expect journalism organizations to avoid oversimplification.”
Consider a comprehensive, data-rich analysis on the topic of suicides in general:
LDS critics often charge that our faith and its policies precipitate and trigger suicide.
To credibly make claims on this topic, one should review the subject comprehensively. I link many articles and studies below that will better inform readers of the many associated and complicating variables.
Engaging in this complex issue with unsupported allegations — sadly, something all too often done by LDS critics — is highly irresponsible.
I’ll open the conversation broadly before answering the critics.
The USA has far too many suicides, but some other countries are worse:
Russian and Eastern Europe have extremely high suicide rates.
Older people, white and American Indian/Alaskan Native men are much more likely to commit suicide than others in the US population.
In connection with suicides, it’s true Utah has a high rate. In fact, it often ranks between #3 and #10. But there is a lot of other information on the subject that, in my view, demonstrates that LDS policies and members are not the primary cause of suicides in Utah.
This entire blog on this subject, written on 1/31/16, is worth reading. It highlights the problems with recent claims that 32 (some reports were as high as 40) young Latter-day Saints recently committed suicide, as a result of Church LGBTQ+ policy.
But, in a strange twist, actual journalism took place at the Tribune, and they were forced to report that there is no evidence of that many of suicides:
Trouble is, the number (32 claimed suicides) far exceeds the suicide figures collected by the Utah Department of Health.
Preliminary figures for November and December show 10 suicides in the Beehive State for people ages 14 to 20, with two more cases “undetermined.”
In fact, the department reports, the overall number of Utah deaths for that age group in those months was 25, including the 10 suicides and two “undetermined” cases, along with 11 in accidents, one by natural causes and one homicide.
“We monitor the numbers [of youth suicides] very closely. We review them every month,” says Teresa Brechlin, who works in the department’s violence- and injury-prevention program. “If we had seen such a huge spike, we would have been investigating it.”
Had there been any mention of the LDS Church’s policy on gays, her department “would have noted that,” Brechlin adds. “We have not seen that at all.”
“People with depression tend to have less efficient energy utilization in certain parts of their brain, like the prefrontal cortex,” said Brent Kious, a U. psychiatry professor and the review’s lead author. This energy roadblock, he said, means people have a tougher time overcoming negative emotions.
It turns out other mountainous states have similarly high suicide rates, with Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico also in the top five and Alaska ranked second, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This trend has earned the Intermountain West a morbid nickname: the suicide belt.
The U. researchers reviewed several U.S. studies that found suicide rates increased with altitude. One that examined nearly 9,000 suicide deaths in 2006 across 15 states found the suicide rate at high altitudes was three times higher than for those living near sea level. Another study noted a “threshold effect,” where suicide rates increased dramatically between 2,000 and 3,000 feet. Salt Lake City’s altitude is 4,265 feet.
Scientists in other countries have discovered similar associations, the U. review found. Suicide rates in Andalusia, a mountainous region of Spain, were higher than the country’s average, a finding correlated with high altitude. In Saudi Arabia, the prevalence of suicidal thoughts among depressed patients at a high-elevation psychiatric hospital was more than five times higher than at a sea level one.
These studies have piled up in recent years, Kious said, including several conducted by researchers at the U. One 2015 study showed how exposure to altitude led to more depression-like behavior in female rats. After a week of thin air, the rats were less likely to struggle in a swim test.
“According to the Centers for Disease Control, youth suicide is in the midst of a precipitous and frightening rise. Between 2006 and 2016, suicides by white children between ages 10 and 17 skyrocketed 70%; while black children are less likely than white children to kill themselves, their suicide rate also jumped 77%.
And as The Blaze points out, CNN reported last year that “the suicide rate among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 rose to a 40-year high in 2015.”
Male and female rates are rises, but women’s rates are rising more as a percentage.
A few years back, the trendy explanation was economic volatility — the market crash of 2007-2008 had supposedly created a culture of despair, cured only by suicide. But the economy is booming, and has been growing steadily since 2009.
There are those who blame the rise in drugs as well, particularly opioids — but according to a study from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, drinking, smoking and drug use may be at the lowest levels “seen in decades,” as the Los Angeles Times reports.
There seems to be a crisis of meaning taking place in America. And that crisis of meaning is heavily linked to a decline in religious observance. As The Atlantic observed in 2014, citing a study in Psychological Science:
The researchers found that this factor of religiosity mediated the relationship between a country’s wealth and the perceived meaning in its citizen’s lives, meaning that it was the presence of religion that largely accounted for the gap between money and meaning.
They analyzed other factors—education, fertility rates, individualism, and social support (having relatives and friends to count on in troubled times)—to see if they could explain the findings, but in the end it came down to religion.
#3: In addition, population density plays a role. Rural areas are associated with more suicide.
Note: north central UT is where nearly all Utah residents live. The highest rates in UT are all in Utah’s south, east along the CO border, or near Coalville and the SW corner of Wyoming.
Note the locations of highest suicide rates in Alaska, the state with the highest suicide rate in the USA. These are rural areas with lots of guns.
Note the population density of Alaska. Suicides occur most in very rural areas. Similar to Utah and other states.
Focus in on Utah in the map below. Note where Utah’s highest rates are located. It’s not along the Wasatch Front.
Highest rates are close to the corner with Wyoming and in the eastern and southern parts of the states. All very rural.
A look at Utah’s population density:
Nearly everyone in Utah lives between North Ogden and Nephi.
Utah elevation. The cities in Utah are located in the valleys just west of the mountains. No surprise the rate of suicide is lower from Brigham City to Nephi.
#4: Gun availability is a factor in every state, including Utah:
Utah doesn’t have the highest gun-ownership percentage. But those states that rank in the top 1/3 tend to have many more suicides than those states with fewer gun owners.
Correlation isn’t causation, but the trend is obvious:
Americans commit suicide with a firearm about 1/2 the time. People in other countries almost never kill themselves with a gun.
Roughly 1/2 of suicides are committed by firearms:
Homicides are dropping, suicides are rising, and gun availability has consistently grown:
Kids commonly use a parent’s gun:
Suicide has significantly contributed to the total of firearm fatalities in recent years:
#5: Race, age, and gender play a role in suicide:
White men — in pure numerical terms — common suicide much more.
Alaska Natives have a high rate of suicide attempts.
Compared to Canadians, the Nunavut Inuit have much, much higher suicide rates.
Native Alaska males and non-native males are highest:
Peaks among the young and older:
Across the USA by age:
When teens are in prison they are at much higher risk than the adults in the same prison:
White males are at much higher risk.
Young people hang themselves much more commonly as a percentage than older people.
Rich young people are more common than rich older people. Suicide is less common in the poor countries of the world.
Suicide compared to other causes of death:
Education makes a difference:
#6: Different professions and job environment are associated with higher suicide rates:
Young people are committing suicide at alarming and growing rates. However, more than young people are dying.
“It’s not just young people. According to Tom Simon, a CDC report author, “We know that overall in the US, we’re seeing increases in suicide rates across all age groups.” As of 2016, suicide levels were at 30-year highs.
Area of employment is also associated with risk factors.
Those in the military facing combat had higher suicide rates:
Working outside and installing/repairing things is stressful.
We’ll focus more specifically on Utah below.
Other Rocky Mountains states and Alaska have higher rates than Utah. Not all studies find the same results, but they are similar. Utah is #5 in the U of Utah study below:
#5 in this study:
Utah Department of Health reported Utah is ranked #7:
“I then asked Hunter about conflicting research that shows that even though Mormons in general rank as very happy, Utah (which is nearly 70% Mormon) has a high suicide rate and a lot of women on antidepressants.
“Some people think that this paradox is explained by relative comparisons of utility. People compare their happiness to other people’s. It may feel particularly painful to be unhappy when everyone around you is happy.
There’s also a lot of research that talks about elevation and suicide.” (See here for a brief discussion of the role of altitude and mountains in suicide rates.)
Great podcast! Faith is reasonable. And is a choice.
Abstract: In this article I argue that faith is not only rationally justifiable but also inescapable simply because our decisions regarding ultimate questions must necessarily be made under conditions of objective uncertainty. I review remarks by several prominent thinkers on the subject — both avowed atheists and several writers who have addressed the challenge implicit in issues related to faith and reason. I end my discussion by citing William James, who articulated clearly the choices we must make in addressing these “ultimate questions.”
Super talk by Noel B. Reynolds. You can read or listen to it here.
– INFLUENCE OF THE SPIRIT
– SENTIMENTALISM VS. SPIRIT
– DISCERNMENT IMPORTANT
– LIGHT OF CHRIST
– USEFULNESS OF REASON
– THE ROLE OF SIN
– CONFIDENCE IN THE LORD
– GUIDELINES TO KEEP FAITH
– INTELLECT AND FAITH
A wonderful quote:
“Too much of the literature used, seen, and quoted in the Church today is just sentimental trash which is designed to pull our heartstrings or moisten our eyes, but it is not born of true spiritual experience. The tendency of our youth to use sentimental stories in Church talks creates a culture of spiritual misunderstanding in which thinking and learning are discouraged.”
Do you always believe everything negative about Hillary? What about the bad news about Trump? Immediately believe such news?
You shouldn’t. Everyone is wrong and makes mistakes. Trump makes lots. So does Hillary. Some policies each proposes are bad. All aren’t good. We should use balance, reason, and prudence to discern what is good and what is bad — not parrot like an uninformed, zealous partisan.
We find people debating every social, religious, and political issue every day. On Facebook. On blogs. On TV. At work. Those in these debates can usually be placed on a continuum of reason vs. blind faith. On a continuum of information and data vs. data-free emotion.
Atheists may have blind faith in their positions with no basis in fact. Theist also may have blind faith with no basis in fact. Your co-worker may be entirely emotional and not study any issues. A neighbor may never be emotional and have every fact in the Universe memorized. Everyone relies on some amount of faith and then an individual amount of facts.
We don’t know everything, so we gotta have faith in many areas of life. But to rely solely on emotion or blind faith isn’t a good approach, in my view. Instead, to we should gather all available data to make the most-informed decision possible.
I’ve noticed that many LDS critics fall into this category — partisan, uniformed zealots — on many topics. They rush to judgment when an LDS official is accused of wrongdoing, for example (this has occurred recently online). Indeed, in my experience zealous LDS critics often assume the worst when the topic involves Joseph Smith or current leaders. More data or context isn’t needed. No way! They “know” the truth, and their mind’s made up.
This tendency — to assume the worst without evidence — is indicative of a problem. A lack of balance and sense of proportion. A willingness to be ignorant. Perhaps lacking understanding that they’re, in fact, ignorant. But being ignorant, nevertheless.
A commitment to a cause — be it Trump, Hillary, the LDS Church, etc — that is not based in reality. But in large amounts of emotion.
Critics of the Church (or any organization that is being unfairly maligned) often withhold exculpatory information. This means, information that would exonerate or free of wrongdoing is intentionally withheld. This is dishonest.
Remember the Duke Lacrosse case? The lacrosse players hired a stripper. Bad idea. But they didn’t rape her, as she later claimed. The District Attorney assigned to the case stretched out the case longer than he should of, and used it as a way to get reelected.
It turned out, the DA also withheld evidence that would have freed the boys and avoided ruining their reputations (and lives for a few years). That is, he buried exculpatory evidence. He was disbarred (lost his law license) for this action.
These kinds of practices are dishonest, unethical, and a form of misrepresentation. Fair-minded people need to weigh the evidence. They should see the often weak claims — especially in light of more data and context — as undermining of a critic’s position. Waiting and researching prevents quick, rash, overreactions.
Of course, Mormons can also be immensely defensive and not follow the facts. They shouldn’t. Latter-day Saints should follow the evidence and increase their testimony. After all, we embrace all truth!
Mormon leaders have not and never will be perfect. Neither have biblical leaders or leaders of any organization now or in history been perfect. But, as unfamiliar issues and controversies arise, let’s gather all the possible associated data before we throw out the baby with the proverbial bathwater.
If you’re too quick at either activity — to defend or to accuse — rather than gather the evidence fully, you might fall into the zealot camp. An overzealous and uninformed fan with lacks proportion, balance, and all the context.
So, if you’re an absolute, fully committed, all-in Trump, Hillary die hard, LDS critic, or uninformed partisan for the LDS faith you might want to evaluate your positions and look at more data before you jump to the defense of your candidate or annihilation of your opponent.
My experience is that the vast, vast majority of Latter-day Saints don’t rob, steal, or assault sexually (or otherwise). However, some do. And our past leaders were good men. And our religious practices took place in a real, historical context that takes time to appreciate. So, as we learn, let’s hear all sides, allow for due process, and not rush to judgment.
And when questions arise relative to items in LDS history, please take the time to do the research. You shouldn’t immediately trust LDS critics, nor should you exclusively trust what your Uncle Bob might say about our own history (even if he’s an active member). Study things on your own. Weigh the evidence. And strive for balance and prudent understanding.
The best route is to follow the advise given in this podcast: always consider the best in other faiths and groups. Don’t knock down their weakest point. Appreciate their strongest point!