Atonement Theories Part 1

Ronan had up a couple of good posts about the substitutionary atonement theory. (Here and here) I think the key point is this:

That is the problem with the substitutionary atonement model. We moderns don’t believe in it in principle. This is why the various parables out there that try to explain the atonement are so poor.

His posts belong to my favorite class of blog post. You may not agree with it but it forces you to rethink through things. So I’ve really been thinking through my suppositions in all this the past few week. As such it’s been amazingly fruitful.

I think Ronan is onto something. The way we conceive of the world is radically different from what it once was. Most of the underlying metaphors used by the scriptures don’t make a lot of sense to us. When we do understand it, it tends to be through a series of symbolic moves. We don’t “get it” at a gut level. The discussions fit into a kind of political world that no longer holds. Worse, the political environment where they made sense seems unarguably bad.1 We no longer think someone’s child should pay for their mistakes, for instance. We don’t think we should have slaves. And on and on. So trying to explain our relationship with God in terms of these metaphors is pretty problematic if only because it tends to require pushing a political economy to God that is inherently unjust thereby making God unjust.

The most common example of the unjust or weak view of God entailed by these theories is the typical view of atonement. Often the atonement seems created to deal with a Kafkaesque complexity of laws where mercy can’t rob justice, but justice is arbitrary and perverse. In order to cut the gordian knot of this nearly Monty Python entrapment from sin, God sends his son in such a way that all these perverse laws are satisfied. The problem is that if God is God, surely he can cut the gordian knot the simple way – much like Alexander did the real knot. The problem with these views, is that law becomes a rube goldberg machine that lost its designer under which God is as much a victim as any of Kafka’s protagonists.2

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  1. I emphasize seems. I think our assumptions about the ancient world often are wrong. Sometimes we overly romanticize the primitive world and sometimes we unduly castigate it as unredeemable brutal and unsalvageable. I think reality often is more complex than those competitive moves. Both these moves owe a lot to Hobbe’s Leviathan where the state of nature was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” In reaction to Hobbes, often tied to romanticism, rose the myth of the nobel savage. Now somehow primitive people were more authentic and closer in an ethical way to nature. Both views clearly are distorting.
  2. This conception of God in a confusing mess where everything does its part actually can be seen in the climax to Time Bandits where God and the devil literally are in a confusing Monty Python mess.

Religious Equilibrium

I promise to ease up a bit on the demographics posts. Still they are quite interesting though with lots of new data coming out. Today was no exception with an interesting analysis of religious equilibrium at Five Thirty Eight. It basically looks a churn of religions (inflow and outflow) combined with birth rate information to get an idea of what the future equilibrium of religion will be. 

Now as a model this is a little problematic if only because I think the rise of the Nones demonstrates some broader social changes at play. So it’s almost certain that this equilibrium is a bit misleading. Still it shows a bit of what given current conditions is going on.

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Mormon Demographics: Canadian Edition

I was discussing my post on the recent Pew data with a friend on ADN today. He thought that the United States was religiously moving towards the rest of the rich world and perhaps becoming more like Canada. I thought it was an interesting question both because Canada is in some ways very much like the US and in other ways much more like Europe. Plus I’m a Canadian ex-pat myself so I was a little curious about what the numbers regarding Mormonism and religion in Canada are. Much to my surprise, Canada is far more like the US than most might expect.

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Pew: Sharp Drop in Christians

Pew has up a new story with recent data on the decline of self-identifying Christians. It’s not that different from my recent discussions but it does have more recent data which confirms the most trends of the past are continuing. From 2007 to 2014 using Pew data self-identifying Christians went from 78.4% to 70.6%. Evangelicals went from 26.3% to 25.4% although their absolute numbers increased. Unaffiliated (i.e. the Nones) went from 16.1% to a staggering 22.8%. That’s not that surprising when you see how high the rates are among the young. The believers are simply dying off. Mainline protestants are dying off fast. It went from 18.1% to 14.7%. Catholics dropped much more than I would have expected given immigration. This is the first real drops in Catholics who have been rather stable while Protestants were suffering the most loses. It went from 23.9% to 20.8%.

They have Mormons with a slight drop of 1.7 to 1.6% but looking at their other numbers that’s not statistically significant. (Their figures for other movements are around ±1.5 million so with a small Mormon population the figures aren’t too accurate) Pew always had Mormons as a bigger population than ARIS did.1

Continue reading Pew: Sharp Drop in Christians

  1. I should note that I’ve always had trouble with Pew’s Mormon data both for giving what seem non-sensical answers for certain questions but also for population sizes. ARIS in 2008 had Mormons as 1.4% – the same as in 1990. I tend to trust the ARIS data more than Pew. It’ll be interesting to see what ARIS has us at in their next study.

The Logic of Abduction

Peirce tied together closely the pragmatic maxim and abduction. The pragmatic maxim was Peirce’s verificationalist principle of meaning (not truth, as was the case for many others). I find the following quote from Peirce extremely helpful both in terms of thinking through science but also religion. In particular I like a lot his distinction between aesthetical goodness and cognitive goodness (or rationality). Many critique Mormons for focusing in on good feelings in terms of revelation. But those alone aren’t enough. I think many misunderstand Mormon conceptions of epistemology because they focus on these emotional trappings rather than the core.

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A Bit More on Emerson

A few days ago I mentioned a paper comparing Orson Pratt’s view of ontological individuality with Emerson and James. I found an other excellent paper on a related topic: Ben Park’s “Emerson and Joseph Smith” in the Winter 2010 Journal of Mormon History. He’s very good at being careful in his parallels – something so often missing in discussions of early Mormonism. He doesn’t focus as much on ontology as epistemology. There he notes a similar sense of individual revelation in early Mormonism and Emerson. However he notes that Joseph never goes as far as Emerson. Instead he keeps a strong place for reason.

While Smith may have shared intuitive leanings with Romantics like Emerson, his opposing pull toward rationalism tempered it noticeably. Both thinkers desired a more intimate and personal connection with God, yet Smith never abandoned the need to have it tethered to some form of reasonable discourse. Most importantly, Smith believed that an external voice revealed truth, while Emerson’s epistemology relied on inner guidance. Thus, Smith captures and holds the tension between the intellectual shift from Enlightenment thought to Romanticism, while it is Emerson, not Joseph, who “was a romantic to his innermost fiber.”

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Pratt, Emerson and James on God

I’ve been slowly catching up with a lot of reading I’ve been behind in for years. One paper I wanted to discuss was Jordan Watkins’ “The Great God, the Divine Mind, and the Ideal Absolute: Orson Pratt’s Intelligent-Matter Theory and the Gods of Emerson and James.” It’s from The Claremont Journal of Mormon Studies. (Edit: Available at Long time readers of the prior two blogs know that Orson Pratt has long been an interest to me. Not because I think he’s right but because thinking through his speculations tends to touch most key aspects of Mormon thought. Now while a lot of Pratt’s views have been extremely influential on Mormon folk theology there are quite a few aspects that most people aren’t that aware of.

For instance in at least some places Pratt calls that totality of intelligent matter “The Great God” and thus his view of God is a kind of panentheism. This got him into trouble with Brigham Young who thought he ended up treating the attributes of God as more foundational that the person of God. I think it fair to say that Pratt was trying to sneak the old Trinitarian ousia back into Mormonism via a weird panentheism that seemed at times like Stoic views of God by ways of Priestly’s atoms. He took the 19th century physics conception of the aether as actually being this spiritual fluid of all intelligence. In terms of understanding Pratt, I think the Stoics have been unfortunately neglected among most works I’ve read. Some have noted the parallels with certain neoPlatonics, although a lot of the key neoPlatonic parallels themselves arise out of the platonic appropriation of key Stoic doctrines or arguments.

In this paper Watkins focuses not on ancient philosophy but on the American philosophers Emerson and James who were contemporaries of Pratt. Emerson during the Nauvoo era and James at the end of Pratt’s life on into the beginning of the 20th century. 

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  1. Sadly there is no Kindle, iBook or other ebook version. Of course I’d bought my copy back before I’d gone ebook only whenever possible. Edit: Just discovered it at

Utah Conservatism in The Economist

The economist has an interesting story on Utah and in particular our pragmatic form of conservatism. I’m not sure it’s that different from elsewhere. (I think the media often paints conservatism with too broad and univocal a brush – if you don’t mind me mixing metaphors) Since it may be behind a paywall I’ll quote from it.

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Mormons and the Rise of the Nones

In the various demographic posts I’ve done I’ve mentioned that the significant change since the mid-90’s in American religious makeup is the rise of the Nones. This is a group that not only includes atheists and agnostics but also those somewhat religious but turned off from organized religion. My sense, perhaps incorrect, is that were we to include those people who are Protestants, Catholics or other sects but who know little about their faith and rarely participate that the size of the Nones would be significantly higher. According to Pew only about half of those who seldom or never attend religious ceremonies self-identify with a particular religious affiliation. This is a drop of 10 points from 2002 to 2012. As Pew notes, “Americans who rarely go to services are more willing than in the past to drop their religious attachments altogether.”

With regards to Mormons it’s hard to know how many of those who leave Mormonism move into the Nones. That’s partially due to the very nature of Mormonism such that there are numerous converts. While I don’t know the exact statistics it’s usually thought that the majority of these converts don’t stay within Mormonism for long. A better figure are those raised Mormon. Most studies put Mormon retention of raised members between 64% and 72%. Of those approximately 30% who leave Mormonism Pew has about half (14% of total) joining the Nones. So about 14% of Mormon end up joining the Nones, ignoring those long term converts who choose to leave. I’m not sure it’s fair to count recent converts who don’t stay in Mormonism as leaving Mormonism in any strong sense.1 However people who’ve been a member for over eight years who leave do seem more significant. I’ve just not seen any statistics on this group. I’d expect the rates to be below the retention of raised members simply due to the changes that happen in ones early 20’s in terms of forming ones own beliefs and identity. That’s just a guess though.

Continue reading Mormons and the Rise of the Nones

  1. While I don’t have contemporary statistics some studies published in the 90’s suggest over half go inactive and most of those within the first 8 months.

Ordinal Polytheism

Ordinal polytheism. A view of God motivated by cosmological and design arguments as well as Lewis’ modal realism and Leibniz. (HT: Blake Ostler) The main aspect some might find interesting is that there are no maximally perfect Gods ala traditional Leibniz. Where I suspect people like Blake find it interesting is in this:

Ordinal polytheism argues for an infinite plurality of gods. Unlike earlier polytheisms, ordinal polytheism does not posit more than one god at our universe. On the contrary, it associates our universe with exactly one god. This is our local god (or, to use the term actual indexically, it is the actual god). But ordinal polytheists will argue that our local god depends for its existence and its nature on prior gods. And they will argue that our local god has a counterpart at every possible concrete universe.

We should however note that what’s going on in modal logic where there’s a different world for every possibility. So we have to be careful here. I’m skeptical this has much to do with Mormon thought.

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