Discussions of Book of Mormon issues and evidences, plus other topics related to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Bounty Hunters, Jealous Boyfriends, Stalkers, and Lazy Hit Men: How Much Should Your Phone Company Charge to Tell Them Where You Are Right Now?

Here's a question to ponder: To be fair and responsible, just how much should your phone company charge for your jealous boyfriend or angry ex-spouse to know where you are at the moment? How much should a stalker have to pay to track your location? Should the rates be higher for bounty hunters, lazy hit men, or anybody who wants to rough you up or even an old score? How about an employer or prospective employer who wants to see where you worship, or if you visit casinos, or attend political gatherings he or she doesn't like?

For a fair general price to give away your current location to anybody who wants to find you for any reason, would you pick: A) $300, B) $50, C) $12.95 or D) $4.95?

Good news! Whatever you picked, you're right! Those are all possible prices. So relax. But first, read this story from Motherboard by Joseph Cox: "I Gave a Bounty Hunter $300. Then He Located Our Phone," Motherboard, Jan 9, 2019. He notes that "T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are selling access to their customers’ location data, and that data is ending up in the hands of bounty hunters and others not authorized to possess it, letting them track most phones in the country."

Again, please stay calm. Relax. Really, you can, because now that the big telecom companies have been called out on this corrupt and dangerous practice, several of them have assured us that they oppose this practice and aren't going to do it again. It's awesome to hear this assurance from them. Doubly awesome, in fact, because as Senator Ron Wyden told Motherboard, “For the second time in six months, carriers are pledging to stop sharing American’s location with middlemen without their knowledge. I’ll believe it when I see it.” Yep, they promised to stop six months ago, and now with this new promise, you can have faith (blind faith, in fact) that they are really going to stop this time.

Privacy issues continue to pose a threat to all of us, whether it's from the domestic spying one's own nation does on its citizens (thinking mostly of America's own NSA and the havoc they have brought with their advanced hacker tools that are being shared and used all over the world) or from others. It's an issue I care about greatly. But it's not just governments and hackers that pose threats to us. In far too many cases, it's reckless and greedy corporations who acquire and sell our data without our permission or carelessly let it slip into the hands of others.

Maintaining the right to privacy also ultimately relates to the issue of religious liberty. I personally feel that one can't have sound and lasting religious liberty while surrendering other liberty after liberty in the name of letting big government or big industry take care of us (the two are increasingly partners in the work on monitoring, tracking, and influencing citizens, it seems). I know, lunatic fringe, right? If you think I'm unhinged and dangerous for having such views, please let me know -- and also please leave your cell phone number. Why? So I can better understand where you're coming from, of course. :)

Thursday, January 10, 2019

If Utah Were an Island

What if Utah were an island? OK, I know what you're thinking, but I mean the kind of island that is near sea level, surrounding by lovely beaches and not towering mountains. Given the growing evidence that altitude is one of the strongest factors related to suicide rates, not just in the US but around the world, what would Utah's statistics look like? Right now they are pretty bad. Utah is #5 in the nation with a rate of 21.8 per 100,000. Ouch, that's terrible, much like the terrible rates in other high altitude states. Here's the top ten and their rates per 100,000:

1. Montana — 26
2. Alaska — 25.4
3. Wyoming — 25.2
4. New Mexico — 22.5
5. Utah — 21.8
6. Nevada — 21.4
7. Idaho — 21.3
8. Oklahoma — 20.9
9 (tie). Colorado — 20.5
9 (tie). South Dakota — 20.5

You can see the LDS population of these states in Wikipedia's page on LDS population in the U.S., and then on their page for LDS population in various countries, you can see national statistics for much of the world, and these can be compared to suicide statistics for various countries for an interesting exercise in looking at the complexity of suicide.

As I thought about island states or countries, I considered Hawaii, with a rate of 12, giving it a rank of 41 in the U.S. Not bad. Hawaii's 5.2% LDS population does not seem to be domoralizing the population all that much. But then I remembered Samoa. American Samoa has a sizable LDS population. I was almost afraid to look at the suicide statistics because I had the image of a country with a poor economy and big, aggressive men under a lot of pressure. Surely the news wouldn't be good. To my surprise, American Samoa, with 40% Latter-day Saints, has a suicide rate of 5.4, less than half that of Hawaii. A fluke? Then comes Tonga, with 60% LDS population -- more LDS than Utah! -- and yet its suicide rate is even lower than American Samoa: 4.0, ranked #156 in the world.

Yes, I know, the culture is much different and guns are not abundant, but it shows that a high LDS population is not necessarily driving people to suicide. Maybe a change in altitude could be a good thing for those struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. Maybe Tonga or Samoa is the place for you?

Yet both island nations face increasing trouble with suicides and they, like all nations, have more work to do to reduce the tragedy of suicide. 

Related stories:

Saturday, January 05, 2019

The Height of Absurdity? Revisiting the Impact of Altitude, Oxygen, and Serotonin on Suicide Rates

Though I disagreed with some of the arguments made in the film Believeras discussed in my previous post, it did help me to better appreciate how serious our problem with suicide is within the Utah, as well as all over the world, including right here in China where suicide remains a serious but often under-reported problem.

Speaking of suicides in China, I was just a few yards away from a tragic suicide, and would have been killed myself if I had stepped over into the path of a man who threw himself from the tall building where I work. It happened a few months ago where I work while I was casually reading a book one morning before work. He was only about 30, I think. It was a disturbing scene that strongly affected me for some time, and that was for a total stranger. On the same day, I received an even more disturbing image on my phone from some dear farmer friends in Jiangxi Province whose handicapped son had given up and thrown himself into a river. Two rather gruesome suicides impacting my life on the same day. How tragic it can be for families and friends of those who take their own lives.

Our love and kindness is needed for those around us in order to help prevent suicide, no matter how much we may disagree with their religious views, their politics, or their lifestyles. Those who are feeling alone, depressed, or rejected may be vulnerable to suicide. Kindness and love can save lives. Kindness and love is also desperately needed for the families and friends of those who commit suicide, for their trauma and anguish can be devastating.

In reading some of the studies related to suicide and some of the reports and arguments dealing with the role of religion and the Church, it has been interesting to see how complex the issues are and how easy it is for serious mistakes to be made when one just relies on gut feel, emotion, and simple assumptions in assigning blame. Too many critics go no deeper than just noting that Utah has a high suicide rate and concluding it must be because Utah has lots of "Mormons" (51%)--or rather, the people often nicknamed Mormons, but properly called members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  Our critics often think they are making the world better by leading people away from or out of the Church, but in terms of suicide prevention, they may be making things much worse.

For faithful Latter-day Saints seeking to understand the issue of suicide and wishing to push back on unfair criticism, it is not enough to merely point out the fallacy when critics assume that Utah's suicide problem is due to the teachings and policies of the Church.  There are more intelligent arguments and evidence suggesting that LDS religious influence can contribute to a sense of shame or rejection among LGB youth that can plausibly increase their suicide risk. This is a danger we need to be aware of and work to mitigate with love and kindness. While religious involvement and especially attendance in religious services appears to be a strong positive factor in reducing suicide risk, there are offsetting factors that also need to be considered. It's a complicated issue. More work is needed to understand causes and effects.

Reports pointing to possibly negative impacts from the Church can be found in the following:
I wish to agree with these authors that the obvious problem in our midst demands action now to help reduce the problem. But some will assume that the action needed is not just our personal efforts to be kind, but systematic efforts to get people out of the Church or to reduce its influence or to dramatically change its policies and teachings. In light of the strong empirical data on the benefits of religious faith and religious activity in reducing suicide, such actions would seem to be misguided. A wise response requires understanding the many factors that can contribute to suicide before pointing fingers and prescribing unhealthy cures.

Not to be a pill, but it seems to me that none of these reports cited above, nor any of the various criticisms I've seen that seek to blame the Church for Utah's high suicide rate, has given any serious attention (usually not even a footnote or mention of any kind) to one of the most important factors associated with high suicide rates in the United States and around the world. Have you heard about this? It's altitude. That's right, distance above sea level. Huh? How can that affect suicide?

The Lowdown on High Altitudes and Suicide

A wide variety of recent studies show that one of the most persistent and significant factors associated with high suicide is altitude. The mechanism is still a subject of research, but the lower oxygen levels at high altitudes can have an effect on serotonin and while that can be positive for many people, it can exacerbate or contribute to depression for others. Multiple studies now point to altitude as having a significant effect on suicide. There is still more to understand and debate, but this is a noteworthy development.

See Rebekah S Huber et al. (including Perry Renshaw, mentioned below), "Altitude is a Risk Factor for Completed Suicide in Bipolar Disorder," Medical Hypotheses, 82/3 (March 2014): 377–381. Huber et al. examined data from 16 states for the years 2005–2008, representing a total of 35,725 completed suicides in 922 U.S. counties. They found that those with bipolar disorder (BD) who committed suicide preferentially did so at high altitudes, and that altitude had a stronger effect on sufferers of BD than it did on other mental illnesses.

The first such study I am aware of is C.A. Haws et al. (including Perry Renshaw), "The possible effect of altitude on regional variation in suicide rates," Medical Hypotheses, 73/4 (Oct. 2009): 587-90, with this abstract:
In the United States, suicide rates consistently vary among geographic regions; the western states have significantly higher suicide rates than the eastern states. The reason for this variation is unknown but may be due to regional elevation differences. States' suicide rates (1990-1994), when adjusted for potentially confounding demographic variables, are positively correlated with their peak and capital elevations. These findings indicate that decreased oxygen saturation at high altitude may exacerbate the bioenergetic dysfunction associated with affective illnesses. Should such a link exist, therapies traditionally used to treat the metabolic disturbances associated with altitude sickness may have a role in treating those at risk for suicide. 
So Haws et al., like other authors, note that high altitude doesn't make everyone more likely to commit suicide, but seems to be a strong factor for those already suffering from serious mental health issues.

Now a variety of additional studies have been published, with several cited in the Huber et al. article above.

One study of particular interest is that of Barry Brenner, David Cheng, Sunday Clark, and Carlos A. Camargo, Jr., "Positive Association between Altitude and Suicide in 2584 U.S. Counties," High Altitude Medicine & Biology, 12/1 (April 2011): 31–35; doi: 10.1089/ham.2010.1058. While earlier studies looked at mean elevation of various states, Brenner et al. recognized that altitude within a state can vary widely, so they looked at mean elevation for individual counties. They analyzed the data from over 2500 counties in the continental United States, giving much higher granularity than was possible in earlier work. "The higher-altitude counties had significantly higher suicide rates than the lower-altitude counties. Similar findings were observed for both firearm-related suicides (59% of suicides) and nonfirearm-related suicides. We conclude that altitude may be a novel risk factor for suicide in the contiguous United States." Below is an excerpt and a chart:
Despite a negative correlation (r = −0.31, p < 0.001) between county altitude and the all-cause mortality rate, there was a strong positive correlation (r = 0.50, p < 0.001) between altitude and suicide rate at the county level (Fig. 1). Positive correlations were also observed for both firearm-related suicides (r = 0.40, p < 0.001) and nonfirearm-related suicides (r = 0.31, p < 0.001). Controlling for five potential confounders (percent of age >50 yr, percent male, percent white, median household income, median family income, and population density of each county), increasing altitude deciles were associated with significantly higher suicide rates.... The threshold value for increased suicide rates occurred in the range of 2000–2999 ft.... Similar findings were observed for firearm-related suicides, which comprise 59% (352,052 firearm suicides per 596,704 total suicides) of all suicides.
Such findings are gradually making it into popular media, though I suspect that many of us haven't heard much about this yet. One very readable and interesting report is Theresa Fisher, "There's a Suicide Epidemic in Utah — And One Neuroscientist Thinks He Knows Why," Mic.com, Nov. 18, 2014 (a hat tip to Russell Osmond for this article). For a Wyoming perspective, see Joe O'Sullivan, "Altitude may be major factor in suicide," Casper Star-Tribune, Sept. 18, 2011. An excerpt follows:
When it comes to suicide in Wyoming, guns often take the blame as a contributing factor. So does the isolation and flinty independence of rural culture. But a possible cause now being looked at appears to be a more important contributor to self-inflicted deaths: altitude.

Researchers at the University of Utah have found a correlation between how high above sea level people live and per capita suicide rates. Between 1999 and 2007, Wyoming had the fourth-highest rate of suicides per capita in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; states in the Mountain West hold nine of the top 10 spots.

The researchers looked at 35 separate factors that could cause suicide. Using suicide data from the CDC and mapping data by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, they found a distinct correlation between elevation and suicide.

“The Rocky Mountain states just jumped out at you,” said Dr. Perry Renshaw, a professor at the university who took part in the research. “No matter what we did, the altitude kept coming up with a significant factor.”

The study shows that suicides occur between 60 and 70 percent more frequently at high elevations compared to sea level, according to Renshaw.

In fact, altitude surpassed both the isolation of rural culture and the prevalence of gun ownership, both of which come up as assumed causes for the high suicide rate, according to Renshaw. Altitude was the second-highest ranking of 35 variables. The only suicide indicator that ranked higher was being a single mother, he said.

Renshaw, who has spent 15 years studying brain chemistry, said lower oxygen levels in the brain affect people with depression and bipolar disorder.
Both of those disorders involve problems with how the brain uses energy, according to Renshaw. Recent research suggests that the amount of oxygen a person receives affects their mental faculties and performance.

“In depression, what we find is that there are changes in these high-energy compounds in the brain,” Renshaw said.

While oxygen makes up the same percentage of air at sea level as it does at high altitudes, atmospheric pressure — the amount of molecules compressed into one space — decreases with height.

That means people take in fewer oxygen molecules with each breath in a city like Casper, which is a mile above sea level, compared to someone living at sea level.
Comparisons outside the U.S.

To prove the data wasn’t just a fluke, Renshaw and the researchers looked overseas to prove their hypothesis. They did this by analyzing suicide rates in a mountainous country with an elevation that at its highest reaches 6,398 feet: South Korea.

“It was exactly the same result,” Renshaw said, referring to a comparison of suicides in South Korea with the Mountain West. “The higher you went, the higher the result.”
More recently, the Salt Lake Tribune has reported on the significance of altitude. See Luke Ramseth, "University of Utah research shows high altitude linked to depression and suicidal thoughts," Salt Lake Tribune, July 18, 2018.

Understanding the impact of altitude for those facing depression or other mental health challenges may now help guide medical professionals in better assisting patients, including single mothers (being a single mother turned up in one study as just about the only risk factor more significant than altitude). If nothing else, getting away to a lower altitude area for a while might be a big help.

A recent publication involving the Andes, not done by Renshaw, also points to a possible altitude effect, though the authors don't seem familiar enough with Renshaw's work to explain why an altitude effect might exist. See Esteban Ortiz-Prado, "The disease burden of suicide in Ecuador, a 15 years’ geodemographic cross-sectional study (2001–2015)," BMC Psychiatry, 17
(2017): 342; doi: 10.1186/s12888-017-1502-0. They found that "Provinces located at higher altitude reported higher rates than those located at sea level (9 per 100,000 vs 4.5 per 100.000)." A much higher suicide rate for the high-altitude provinces.

These studies are significant enough that they really must be considered by anyone seeking to understand the issue of high suicide rates in the Mountain West or elsewhere, IMHO.

Parkinson's Swift Dismissal of Altitude: A Reminder on Interactions

Altitude actually was mentioned in one of the articles cited above pointing to the Church as a possible factor in suicides. Daniel Parkinson in the first and most recent article listed above mocked the idea that altitude could be an important factor in the statistics pertaining to suicide rates in Utah (see "Utah’s Escalating Suicide Crisis and LDS LGBTQ Despair," Rational Faiths, March 14, 2017). Parkinson is rightfully alarmed at the increase in suicide rates among young people in Utah. But while he and his collaborators have considered many factors in their previously published analysis, they appear to have neglected what may be one of the most important factors, altitude. Altitude as a factor in suicide is a trend that shows up not just across the US but across the world. That doesn't mean that a high population will always have more suicide than a low population, for there are many factors playing a role and human behavior is complicated. But it shows up as a major predictive factor for suicide and should not be overlooked, in my opinion.

Parkinson's swift dismissal of this factor is motivated by the fact that suicide rates in Utah have recently shown an alarming increase, while the altitude obviously isn't changing:
Utah’s rank in overall suicide rate went up from #11 in 2014 to #6 in 2015. This is one area where we don’t want to be #1 but we are heading that way. Sorry folks, it’s not the altitude. As far as I can tell the altitude hasn’t changed lately. Altitude might explain our elevated baseline prior to these increases but it in no way explains a tripling of youth suicides nor these alarming trends among other age groups.
That may sound plausible at first blush, but I was frankly surprised and disappointed by the reasoning here, especially since I expected that Dr. Parkinson should be used to dealing with multivariate analysis and the very common possibility of interactions between the factors considered. Instead, he assumes that any effect of altitude will be a constant part of the baseline and cannot play a role in explaining a change over time.

Consider an analogy to skin cancer. It's an easier issue to consider, I feel, because it's less emotional than suicide and religion, and many people already know that higher altitudes have stronger UV light because the light passes through a shorter distance in the atmosphere resulting in less filtering by ozone. "UV intensity increases with altitude because there is less atmosphere to absorb the damaging rays," as the EPA puts it. "Colorado, for instance, has one of the highest melanoma rates in the country, likely due to its elevation," according to the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Now let's consider two hypothetical regions with 100,000 people each, one region at sea level and one in the Rockies. Let's assume both places have similar populations each with two groups, a "safer" group of 90,000 people who prefer to stays indoors and wear sunblock and protective clothing when outdoors, and an "at risk" group of 10,000 people, initially, who love to engage in unprotected sports and sunbathing. The safer groups in both regions may have a low level of skin cancer (let's say 50 new cases per 100,000 people per year), while the at risk groups will have higher rates, with the at risk group in the high region having a significantly greater rate of cancer (let's say 300 new cases per year per 100,000 people at high altitude and 100 new cases per year per 100,000 people at low altitude). With these assumptions, the new cases of skin cancer per year for the whole population of 100,000 people will be 55 at low altitude (50*90,000/100,000 + 100*10,000/100,000) and 75 at high altitude (50*90,000/100,000 + 300*10,000/100,000). So there's the baseline difference of 20 cases per year.

Now assume that after 5 years at a steady rate, something happens that begins increasing the cancer rate in both locations. One scenario is that the number of people at risk increases. For skin cancer, this could mean more people abandon their indoors lifestyle and take up dangerous activities like golf and jogging. I'll neglect many details such as the years of delay that can occur between sun exposure and skin cancer and assume that the skin cancer increase shows up relatively quickly as sun exposure increases. 

Both locations will now have curves with an upward trend. Will the curves look the same, with the same rate of increase, differing only by a constant baseline? No. See the numbers shown in Table 1 and the curves displayed in Chart 1. As the at risk groups increase, the added numbers in the group at high altitude will experience a greater increase in skin cancer because they are being exposed to stronger UV. With the same population and behavioral dynamics going on, the high region will show a greater rate of increase in the skin cancer rate. It's not because of some pernicious unhealthy impact of Rocky Mountain Mormons, but because the altitude effect magnifies the rate of increase even when all else is the same. It's due to just about the simplest interaction imaginable, one of the many interactions between factors that are part and parcel in the social sciences, in health care, and in just about any other field where multiple factors may influence outcomes.

Table 1 New Skin Cancers
Year Safer Pop.  At RIsk Pop. Low Alt.  High Alt. 
1 90,000 10,000 55 75
2 90,000 10,000 55 75
3 90,000 10,000 55 75
4 90,000 10,000 55 75
5 90,000 10,000 55 75
6 82,000 18,000 59 95
7 74,000 26,000 63 115
8 66,000 34,000 67 135
9 58,000 42,000 71 155
10 50,000 50,000 75 175

In the period with increasing skin cancer, the slope (increase in cases per year) is 20 at high altitude, but only 4 at low altitude. One could lament that skin cancer has more than doubled in 5 years in the high altitude location, while showing a much lower increase elsewhere. What exactly are those lofty high-altitude Mormons doing to spread disaster in their communities? (Hint: it may not be the Church's fault!)

Here we have just about the simplest interaction possible in the data: a simple relationship between the cancer rate in one group and altitude. Interactions can be much more complicated and nonlinear, but even a simple and plausible one results in the kind of differences in rate between two regions that have caused such alarm and finger-pointing in suicide statistics. Altitude cannot be neglected, now that multiple studies have shown it is one of the most important factors in suicide. When other factors are increasing the overall suicide rate, altitude can exacerbate the problem, just as it exacerbates the skin cancer rate in the hypothetical scenario explored above.

But what if the size of the at risk population group does not increase in our analysis above, and instead the rate of skin cancer increases overall because the at risk group experiences a steady increase in cancer rate (say, 20% per year) due to environmental factors or some other reason? Perhaps an interaction with alcohol and drugs, decreasing antioxidants in diet or legislation that bans the most effective ingredients in sun block? We can still see similar results.

Here we keep the two population groups constant (90,000 in the safer group and 10,000 at risk), but in year 5 we begin increasing the skin cancer rate by 20% a year for both the low and high altitude at risk populations. The numbers are shown in Table 2 and the curves are in Chart 2. Here the average slope over the last 5 years ((rate at year 10 - rate at year 5)/5 years) is 8.93 for the high-altitude location and 2.98 at low altitude, or about 9 and 3, for a 300% difference in the rate of increase. It's those Mormons again, no doubt!


Table 2

Cancer Rates:

Year New Skin Cancers Safer Group At Risk, Low Alt. At Risk, High Alt.
1 55 75 50 100 300
2 55 75 50 100 300
3 55 75 50 100 300
4 55 75 50 100 300
5 55 75 50 100 300
6 57 81 50 120 360
7 59.4 88.2 50 144 432
8 62.3 96.8 50 172.8 518.4
9 65.7 107.2 50 207.4 622.1
10 69.9 119.6 50 248.8 746.5

My point here is not just to belabor the obvious error that Parkinson made in his hasty assumption that any impact of altitude on suicide statistics could only show up as a simple shift in baseline values and could not result in a difference in slopes. Rather, I'm calling into question multiple reports and accusations attempting to paint the Church as the key cause of high suicide rates or increasing suicide rates in Utah or in the Mountain West, without having controlled for or thoughtfully considered the possible impact of altitude.

If you look at the distribution of LDS members based on percentage of the population in each state, you see a high concentration in the most mountainous states, as shown in the chart below from Wikipedia's article, "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints membership statistics (United States)." So any analysis of suicide and the relative proportion of Latter-day Saints in a region could be confounded with the impact of altitude. Unless altitude is considered in the analysis, the results may be meaningless and misleading.

Unfortunately, Benjamin Knoll's work may be particularly jeopardized by this potential problem. In his report, "Youth Suicide Rates and Mormon Religious Context: An Additional Empirical Analysis," Rational Faiths, March 9, 2016, he lists states in order of their LDS percentage, shows bars for changes in youth suicide rate, and sees an "obvious" relationship suggesting that the presence of LDS people in a state is associated with suicide (click the chart below to enlarge).  But the high bars on the leftmost high-LDS end of the graph that support the curve Knoll has drawn are largely from high-altitude states, or, in the case of Alaska, have a complex factor of many Native American males with extremely high suicide rates that may require special consideration in the analysis.

I'm also puzzled as to how California ends up near the middle with an LDS influence somewhat less than Alabama or Arkansas, and just greater than Connecticut. The statistics shown by Wikipedia put California with a much higher relative LDS population. Something may be amiss. Further, the apparent 0 bar size for Wyoming is a surprise since Wyoming has seen suicide increase at a rate greater than the US national average. Is it apparently zero because the 2009 data wasn't found? Maine and several other states seem to be in the wrong place.

I need to go over Knoll's data and rerun his analysis, or maybe one of you would like to in your abundant spare time, because I am quite surprised by his claim to have adjusted R2 values of  0.65 and 0.69, respectively, for the relationship between % LDS population in states and the state youth suicide rate for 2009 and 2014, respectively. The data seem scattered all over the place and I just can't imagine such a high correlation is present. Here is Knoll's chart (click to enlarge) for these suicide rates (the above chart, recall, is for the rate of change in suicide rates, taking the difference between 2014 and 2009 data). High on both ends with scatter all over. This really gives a strong correlation in both years? But perhaps once controlled for other factors, it pops out. What happens when altitude is added? More work is needed, as always.

Regardless of the problems with specific states or other details in this analysis, the failure to consider altitude creates the risk of confusing the known effects of altitude for the more speculative effects of LDS religion in seeking to assess potential causes of the suicide problem in the US. Whether one looks at current suicide rates or rates of increase in suicide, altitude can play a role. It really needs to be considered and not dismissed with with a flippant quip.

When the analysis is done more carefully, there may still be good reasons to worry about LDS influence. Will those reasons outweigh the known strong positive effects of being active in religion and in the LDS Church in particular when it comes to promoting mental health and reducing the risk of suicide? In other words, will we be helping those at risk for suicide by leading them out of the Church and keeping them away from LDS neighbors? In the absence of meaningful data and valid analysis for such a conclusion, I think we need to be careful about pointing fingers and focus our energy on encouraging healthy and positive steps by all of us to better support and love those around us, recognizing that many may be in need of more support to overcome the pains and burdens they face. On that point, I heartily agree with Daniel Parkinson, Michael Barker, Benjamin Knoll, Dan Reynolds, John Dehlin, and, of course, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Imagine Fewer Dragons (and More Data): Initial Reactions to the Film Believer with Dan Reynolds and John Dehlin

While returning to the US for Christmas, I looked at the selection of movies on my United Airlines flight and noted that one of their many films dealt with a specific religion, mine. The film, Believer, had this description (listed also at UnitedPrivateScreening.com):
Believer follows Mormon Dan Reynolds, frontman for the Grammy® Award-winning band Imagine Dragons, as he takes on a new mission to explore how the Mormon Church treats its LGBTQ members.
One can easily guess that this documentary, tracing Dan's decision to launch the LoveLoud festival in Utah to support LGBTQ people, is intended to be critical of the Church. It was critical, but I'll have to admit I thought it was well done, interesting, and made some important points. I enjoyed much of the film, in spite of occasional serious objections to what was said. Further, I really enjoyed learning more about Dan Reynolds and his life. I found him to be quite likable and was especially impressed with his wife (now ex-wife, sadly), Aja Volkman. Both are fascinating people. I am deeply sorry that they are now divorced.

Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons
First, a disclaimer. I'm not a big fan of popular music and have only been to a few big-name concerts in my life, mostly in my youth, including John Denver, Elton John, Seals and Croft, and most recently, Imagine Dragons, which two of my sons introduced me to. The Imagine Dragons concert was a couple years ago in Shanghai. Spectacular! I've only bought a tiny handful of rock albums, with Imagine Dragons being the latest (purchased a few years before the concert) and perhaps my most listened to. So I'm a fan of Imagine Dragons. I am also a fan and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And in spite of being frequently condemned for my stance as a conservative Latter-day Saint, which apparently makes me a troglodyte and hater of all things progressive, I count among my friends several people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender and value my time and association with them, in spite of many differences and some things I cannot adequately understand based on my inexperience and my views.

Second, I hope all of us, whatever our social, political, or religious beliefs, will love and be kind to those who are LGBTQ. May we all oppose hate. I want those with suicidal thoughts to get the support and love they need, and to know that their lives matter. I will agree with John Dehlin on this point. (If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)

As for opposing hate, however, I worry that some seem to define hate as any anything they disagree with when it comes to their political or social agenda. To question a redefinition of marriage will be inappropriately viewed as hate by some, along with opposition to unrestricted abortion and a host of other programs, policies, and agendas. The inability of people on both sides of many issues to have civil conversations with political, social, or religious opponents is highly troubling to me. There can be well-reasoned alternative views founded on something other than hate. Ironically, some troubling displays of hate, anger, and outright violence in our society can be found among groups loudly proclaiming their opposition to what they call hate.

Third, my initial thought was curiosity about United Airlines and their selection criteria. Was there now a new and welcome openness about religion in their offerings, with a variety of films dealing with specific religions? As I thumbed through their extensive list of offerings, I didn't see anything that might be viewed as a critical expose of, say, the problems in certain variations of Islam or Islam's attitudes and treatments of LGBTQ members. Was this some kind of oversight at United? Maybe that will be next month.

I also didn't notice any films offered that delve into problems within Catholicism or the harms critics might ascribe to Evangelical Protestantism and their attitudes on LGBTQ issues. Buddhism, Shintoism, Jainism, Daoism, etc. all have their problems or weaknesses, but I didn't see any documentaries to help shame them into healthy progress. It looked like the faith often improperly called "Mormonism" is the only religious topic that United wishes to offer their viewers. Were they also playing "Meet the Mormons" (or "Meet the People Formerly Known as Mormons")? No, the sole selection related to religion, as far as I could tell, was one that is designed to be critical of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In this day of hyper-sensitive efforts to not offend others, criticizing my religion always seems like the only safe exception. For those concerned about LGBTQ issues, it should be obvious that there are larger Christian groups with similar views and large religious groups outside of Christianity with harsher views. But I suppose they lack famous rock stars among their members willing to take them on. For that, the likeable and influential Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons may be a true pioneer, and perhaps this film will be the first step in United's own pioneering efforts to bring religious debate into their entertainment mix. I am anxious to see what other religions might be targeted on future flights, but suspect there will be many more frequent flyer miles to go before I sleep through those films.

The Right Dragon to Slay? Imagine More Data

Now about the film itself. As likable as Dan Reynolds is and as interesting as the documentary was (I loved seeing Dan's household and family up close), and as glad I was to see some of the positive results that Reynolds' LoveLoud festival has brought, there were some bold statements that I feel are misleading. From the beginning to the end, there are assertions that the Church and its policies are to blame for the high suicide rate among LGBTQ people in Utah. This goes without saying for many of our critics, but it also may go without solid evidence. There may be some improper assertions about the cause when there can be many complex factors. On the other hand, there definitely is a problem in Utah that needs more attention, whatever the cause, and if LoveLoud is helping Utahans to be more aware of the problem and the need for more steps to address it, then that's terrific.

The film begins with and often repeats the statement that youth suicides have skyrocketed in Utah, and then implies or directly alleges elsewhere that the Church is to blame--a statement that is not necessarily fair or scientifically supportable. Then we have John Dehlin, featured prominently in the film, a man famed for his opposition to the Church and his tactics of encouraging criticism in others, claiming that no other place in the country has seen the tripling of suicide rates seen in Utah, and that it all began around 2007/2008, the time "when the Church declares war" on LGBTQ people. Over and over, we are told that it is the Church that is causing so many LGBTQ people in Utah to commit suicide, and that bold and brave efforts are needed to pressure the Church and educate its members so that we can, as Reynolds put it, finally get the Prophet to go pray and "get a revelation" to reverse the backward and dangerous policies of the Church and thus help the Church to do the obviously right thing.

The graph below is shown in the film as Dehlin talks about the rapid rise in suicide rates in Utah allegedly due to Church policies. This comes from the blog post, Daniel Parkinson and Michael Barker, "The LGBTQ Mormon Crisis: Responding to the Empirical Research on Suicide," Rational Faiths, Feb 25, 2016. This post compiles a variety of evidences that seek to link Church policies and culture with Utah's suicide problem and should be considered as we seek to understand the issues and causes of the crisis. What I find puzzling is that Dehlin insists that Utah's serious spike in suicides in 2007-2008 with the support for Proposition 8, but it looks like 2012 is the critical year. Perhaps there is some other study that make 2007-2008 look more dramatic in its impact, but this chart doesn't seem to fit the rhetoric. But again, regardless of the cause, that's an ugly curve that should make all of us more aware of the risks that our youth may face.

Chart used in the film from Parkinson and Barker. Click to enlarge.

Suicide in any group is a complex factor. In my view, it is not enough to say that half of Utah (51%) is LDS, and therefore Utah's high suicide rate must be due to the Church, as seems to be the approach a time or two in the film. The first obvious question that must be asked is how does suicide rate among LGBTQ people vary as a function of religious affiliation and religious activity within that affiliation? Is suicide uniquely high for Latter-day Saints only? For active Latter-day Saints only? For those in active LDS families? Do the non-LDS people of Utah have much lower suicide rates? For all the quoting of statistics in the film, a plausible case against the Church is not presented. John Dehlin in a highly staged Skype video call with Dan Reynolds quotes Edmund Burke and calls for good men like Reynolds to stand up against evil (the Church or its policies), but is the Church really the source of increased suicides? Is the Church the evil dragon that brave warriors like Reynolds must fight? Perhaps we need to imagine fewer dragons and obtain more data to actually understand causes and cures, otherwise we may slay the wrong creature.

First, though, whatever the cause, the issue of suicide among LGBTQ  youth is alarming, but it's not just a Utah problem. Summarizing several studies across the US, the Trevor Project lists the following findings:
  • LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth.
  • LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
  • Of all the suicide attempts made by youth, LGB youth suicide attempts were almost five times as likely to require medical treatment than those of heterosexual youth.
  • Suicide attempts by LGB youth and questioning youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or nurse, compared to their straight peers.
  • In a national study, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.
  • LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
The last point is an important one for any family with LGB youth, LDS or otherwise. Rejection and hate will hurt. Love is essential. I can cite my own parents as a wonderful example of acceptance of love toward one of my brothers who left the Church. I believe their steady love has been a valuable factor for him, as it has been for me in my own life in times of trouble. If Dan Reynolds' work helps LDS families remember to love their children even when they are surprised and saddened by the direction they go, whether it involves sexuality or any other issue, much good can be done.

While policies regarding same-sex marriage in the Church may understandably contribute to stress and a sense of rejection for some, the broad issue of elevated suicide for LGBTQ people is not unique to Utah Latter-day Saints or conservative Christian religions. It's far more extensive and complicated than that. But as noted with the Parkinson and Barker report cited above, there are some indications from a variety of angles that can be used to link the Church to the problem, but here I worry that  activism can influence too much of the analysis.

As a reminder of the complex nature of the issues before us and the difficulty of ascribing causation to observed trends, consider Sweden. Sweden, of course, is widely proclaimed as a progressive society and is a nation where LDS shaming and BYU expulsions are negligible factors. Nevertheless, suicide among same-sex couples is significantly higher than for opposite-sex couples. Peer-reviewed research on this issue was recently published by Charlotte Bj√∂rkenstam et al. in "Suicide in married couples in Sweden: Is the risk greater in same-sex couples?," European Journal of Epidemiology  31/7 (July 2016): 685–690. Here is the abstract:
Minority sexual orientation is a predictor of suicide ideation and attempts, though its association with suicide mortality is less clear. We capitalize on Sweden’s extensively linked databases, to investigate whether, among married individuals, same-sex marriage is associated with suicide. Using a population-based register design, we analyzed suicide risk among same-sex married women and men (n = 6456), as compared to different-sex married women and men (n = 1181723) in Sweden. We selected all newly partnered or married individuals in the intervening time between 1/1/1996 and 12/31/2009 and followed them with regard to suicide until 12/31/2011. Multivariate Poisson regression was used to calculate adjusted incidence risk ratios (IRR) with 95 % confidence intervals (CI). The risk of suicide was higher among same-sex married individuals as compared to different-sex married individuals (IRR 2.7, 95 % CI 1.5–4.8), after adjustment for time at risk and socioeconomic confounding. Sex-stratified analyses showed a tentatively elevated risk for same-sex married women (IRR 2.5, 95 % CI 0.8–7.7) as compared to different-sex married women. Among same-sex married men the suicide risk was nearly three-fold greater as compared to different-sex married (IRR 2.895 % CI 1.5–5.5). This holds true also after adjustment for HIV status. Even in a country with a comparatively tolerant climate regarding homosexuality such as Sweden, same-sex married individuals evidence a higher risk for suicide than other married individuals. (emphasis added)
This threefold increase in suicide for same-sex married men vs different-sex married couples in Sweden is consistent with 2015 data reported for gay/lesbian/bisexual youth in Wyoming, a state with significant LDS influence (11.6%):
In 2015 , Wyoming High School students who self-identified as lesbian,  gay, or bisexual were significantly more  likely to report they had seriously considered attempting suicide (54%) or  had attempted suicide (37%) in the past  twelve months compared to students who identified as heterosexual (16 % and 11%  respectively).
For suicidal thoughts, comparing gay, lesbian, and bisexual students we have 54% vs. 16%, slighter over threefold, and for attempted suicide, we have 37% vs. 11%, also over three times as great in Wyoming. 

Regarding US data, Mike Parker writes in "Gay Youth Suicides in Utah," FAIRLDS.org, October 11, 2017:
If it’s true that Mormonism is driving youth suicides in Utah, then we should see a similar suicide rate among youth in other states dominated by religions that are similarly opposed to gay identity, gay lifestyle, and gay marriage. But we don’t: The suicide rates for ages 10 to 24 in Georgia (9.18, #33), South Carolina (9.91, #29), West Virginia (8.88, #37), Alabama (9.56, #32), and all other Southern states as well, are all lower than Utah’s rate. Religious acceptance of homosexuality is at least as low in those states as it is in Utah; why the dramatic difference in youth suicide?

And the reverse must also be true: States with broad acceptance of gay identity, gay lifestyle, and gay marriage must have lower rates of teenage/young adult suicides than Utah; right? Then why does fairly liberal Colorado (16.69, #5) rank just barely ahead of Utah? And why does South Dakota (25.22, #2) differ so much from North Dakota (7.81, #42), when the two states have nearly identical cultures? And why has Utah seen teen/young adult suicides increase by 66% between 2001 and 2015, but Oregon (+78%) and Washington state (+68%), where gays are supposedly warmly embraced, have had higher rates of increase in youth suicide in the same time period?

And, most telling of all, why has the national suicide rate for teens/young adults gone from 6.95 in 2001 to 9.15 in 2015 (an increase of 32%), when acceptance of the gay identity, gay lifestyle, and gay marriage have increased dramatically throughout the United States during the same period? Wouldn’t we expect to see a decrease in the nationwide suicide rate of youths, including gay youths?

The problem here is that suicide is complex, and rarely boils down to a single issue. The narrative that Utah culture and religion are a significant cause of teen suicides in the state isn’t backed up by the evidence, does a disservice to the people of the State of Utah, and does a disservice to people of faith.
To review US data, see the CDC report on suicides by state in the US. Utah ranks high, along with all of its neighbors, whether conservative or liberal. What I wish we had was more data on the specific faiths and level of religious activity among the victims of suicide, combined with data on LGBTQ victims. Is such data available anywhere now? I haven't seen it. However, I am aware of data suggesting that states legalizing same-sex marriage before 2015 saw a 7% decrease in high-school student suicide attempts, with roughly a 14% decrease for LGBTQ students. See Julia Raifman et al., "Difference-in-Differences Analysis of the Association Between State Same-Sex Marriage Policies and Adolescent Suicide Attempts," JAMA Pediatrics 171/4 (April 2017): 350-356; doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.4529. Causality is debatable, but it's consistent with a positive legal environment having some helpful impact.

But for the specific challenges found in Utah and within the Church, can we really properly say that LDS policies are the key problem? Is suicide in Utah among LDS LGB youth truly higher than for non-LDS LGB youth? And if so, is there anything of substance to show a link to the Church as the right target to pursue? I would welcome more data.

Something More in the Motivations Behind the Film? A Minor Aside

Reynolds is presented as a warrior for truth and love whose motivation to stand up against the policies of the Church was motivated by his big heart. This motivation appears to be relatively recent, starting with his marriage where lesbian friends of his wife refused to attend a marriage to a Latter-day Saints due to the Church's support for Proposition 8. After the startling discovery that being LDS was highly offensive to his wife's dear friends, there was gradual recognition that suicide among LGBTQ people is way too high in Utah and allegedly caused by the Church.

Reynolds' journey includes a series of encounters with tragic stories, including that of a young man at BYU who was expelled for violating  the moral code by having sex with his girlfriend. As I recall, this may have been just once or a few times, followed by confession of the sin. I don't know the details behind the decision so cannot judge whether the consequences were overly harsh, though (of course) it sounds that way as presented. Depressed after being ousted from BYU, the young man committed suicide.

I agree that this suicide was a terrible, tragic result and wish it could have been avoided. I do not agree that abandoning the moral code that we believe comes from God is the way to deal with such tragedies or to enhance the overall mental and physical well-being of BYU students. I'm all for increased resources and attention to those facing disappointment and grief, whether it's from repercussions of violating the honor code or failing academically or encountering other sorrows that shatter our dreams. Love and support is needed by all of us in our most painful times. But the existence of or the potential for such pain doesn't mean that the rules or systems we may collide with need to go.

I am puzzled as to why the film neglected to point out that Reynolds, like the expelled student he mourns, was also kicked out of BYU for the same reason, or possibly a more egregious form of that reason. In the opening moments of Dan Reynolds' interview by Ellen DeGeneres, he openly explains that he is upset at the Church for kicking him out of BYU after having had sex with his girlfriend for four years. That would seem to be highly relevant to the film since he has raised a similar case as an example of what's wrong with the Church. Was this information withheld to reduce the chance that the target audience might suspect that Reynolds' has a long-standing grudge against the Church's moral code? Is there fear that an LDS audience might think he wants to change not only Church policies relating to homosexuality or same-sex marriage but the law of chastity in general?

In his interview, he criticizes the Church for the "needless shame and guilt" it caused him and causes others when they clash with such moral codes (of course, if unwilling to abide by the honor code, students have always been free to go to any other university where laxer standards exist). "Why is this thing that feels right also something that gets me kicked out of college and shames me and my community and made me feel all this guilt?" This is a question that can be asked by those caught up in numerous behaviors that religions besides ours view as unhealthy, inappropriate, sinful, harmful to society, etc. From gambling to drug abuse to pedophilia, the world's vices can "feel right" at the time and can bring guilt and shame when consequences follow.

Reynolds said that this painful experience of being expelled was his first recognition that he felt something in the Church needed to change. It apparently wasn't more love for LGBTQ people that he suddenly felt was needed at that time, but would seem to be an abandonment of the Church's fundamental teachings on the law of chastity. Is his target the law of chastity per se? Or perhaps moral codes in general and consequences for breaking them? Or is his target simply just the Church? I don't know. Based on the film, Dan's motivations for speaking against the Church's policies seem driven by sincere concern for LGBTQ people who are at elevated risk for suicide.

May his efforts with the LoveLoud festival reduce suicide risk in Utah and elsewhere, and help all of us be more sensitive to the risks and sorrows that others may face.

Religion and Suicide

The assumption that shame from religious policies increases suicide is repeated in the film and in many other sources, but in my opinion without reliable data. In fact, such assertions fly in the face of evidence showing positive impact of religion in reducing suicide risk for those who attend faithfully. Dr. Tyler J. VanderWeele, Professor of Epidemiology at Harvard University, and Director of the Program on Integrative Knowledge and Human Flourishing at Harvard’s Institute of Quantitative Social Science, explains in "Does Religious Participation Contribute to Human Flourishing?" at Big Questions Online:
[R]ecent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association’s JAMA Internal Medicine and JAMA Psychiatry and in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine indicates that regular religious-service attendance is associated with a number of positive outcomes, including: a roughly 30 percent reduction in mortality over 16 years of follow-up; a five-fold reduction in the likelihood of suicide; and a 30 percent reduction in the incidence of depression. These studies, from my colleagues and me in Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, used data from the Nurses’ Health Study, a long-term study of approximately one hundred thousand nurses with data collected over several decades. The results confirm associations between religious-service attendance and health previously reported in the research literature. 
But does this also apply specifically to Latter-day Saints? I hope so, but again, I would welcome more data. Fortunately, suicide rates versus levels of activity in the Church your young males was explored in a previous study (kudos to John Mansfield for this tip). See Sterling C. Hilton, Gilbert W. Fellingham, and Joseph L. Lyon, "Suicide Rates and Religious Commitment in Young Adult Males in Utah," American Journal of Epidemiology, 155/5 (March 1, 2002): 413–419, https://doi.org/10.1093/aje/155.5.413. Here is the abstract:
Previous studies have used population data to demonstrate an inverse association between suicide rates and religious commitment. This report examines Utah suicide rates for young men aged 15–34 years, stratified by their membership in and commitment to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), the predominant religion in Utah. All state death records for males from 1991 to 1995 were obtained and linked to LDS church deceased membership records to obtain a measure of religious commitment that is not self-reported. Religious commitment for LDS church members was determined by age-appropriate priesthood office. Of the 27,738 male deaths reported, 15,555 (56%) linked to an LDS church record using a probabilistic linking program. Using active (high religious commitment) LDS as the reference group, the less-active (low religious commitment) LDS group had relative risks of suicide ranging from 3.28 (ages 15–19 years) to 7.64 (ages 25–29 years); nonmembers of the LDS church had relative risks ranging from 3.43 (ages 15–19 years) to 6.27 (ages 20–24 years). Although the mechanism of the association is unclear, higher levels of religiosity appear to be inversely associated with suicide. [emphasis added]
Also consider Kanita Dervic, M.D., et al., "Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt," The American Journal of Psychiatry, Dec 2004; https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.161.12.2303. Abstract: 
OBJECTIVE: Few studies have investigated the association between religion and suicide either in terms of Durkheim’s social integration hypothesis or the hypothesis of the regulative benefits of religion. The relationship between religion and suicide attempts has received even less attention. METHOD: Depressed inpatients (N=371) who reported belonging to one specific religion or described themselves as having no religious affiliation were compared in terms of their demographic and clinical characteristics.
RESULTS: Religiously unaffiliated subjects had significantly more lifetime suicide attempts and more first-degree relatives who committed suicide than subjects who endorsed a religious affiliation. Unaffiliated subjects were younger, less often married, less often had children, and had less contact with family members. Furthermore, subjects with no religious affiliation perceived fewer reasons for living, particularly fewer moral objections to suicide. In terms of clinical characteristics, religiously unaffiliated subjects had more lifetime impulsivity, aggression, and past substance use disorder. No differences in the level of subjective and objective depression, hopelessness, or stressful life events were found.
CONCLUSIONS: Religious affiliation is associated with less suicidal behavior in depressed inpatients. After other factors were controlled, it was found that greater moral objections to suicide and lower aggression level in religiously affiliated subjects may function as protective factors against suicide attempts. Further study about the influence of religious affiliation on aggressive behavior and how moral objections can reduce the probability of acting on suicidal thoughts may offer new therapeutic strategies in suicide prevention.
On the other hand, a study of Austrians indicated that the impact of religion, often found to be helpful in reducing suicide, can also be a risk factor. See Karl Kralovec et al., "Religion and Suicide Risk in Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Austrians," Journal of Religion and Health, 53/2 (April 2014): 413–423. Their study of the effect of religion on suicide risk in a sample of 358 lesbian, gay and bisexual Austrians found "religion was associated with higher scores of internalized homophobia, but with fewer suicide attempts. Our data indicate that religion might be both a risk and a protective factor against suicidality in religiously affiliated sexual minority individuals." Also see NPR's summary of several studies, including some mentioned above, that suggest that tolerant legislation on same-sex marriage can have a helpful impact on suicide among LGB youth, though the problem remains severe.

Religion, policies, family response, peer response, state and local environments, and a host of other factors can have an impact on suicide for youth and for LGB youth in particular. There's a problem that needs more attention, more love, and more data. Religion's role may be much more positive than commonly recognized, in spite of the tendency by some to assume that the Church's failure to support gay marriage inherently represents hate that makes many young people more likely to commit suicide. Of course, at the same time I can agree that such policies can be viewed as horrific by those they most affect and can contribute to anger and a sense of rejection. If that is contributing to suicide in populations already at risk for elevated suicide, then I am deeply sorry. Do such risks outweigh the helpful benefits of religious faith that can greatly reduce suicide? What are the real factors causing the complex results we see? For such issues, more data and fewer hasty conclusions are needed, in my opinion. But in any case, more kindness and love to those around us is always needed.

Overall, Believer is a highly interesting and entertaining documentary, though I'm not convinced Reynolds really counts as a believer, nor that he has picked the right dragon to slay. It's quite a coup for John Dehlin, so congrats to him for scoring such a major media victory, and while I disagree with John on many issues, I will gladly agree on the need to elevate our attention and kindness to those at risk in our midst.

Related resource: "Suicide in the United States," Wikipedia.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

The Town of Palmyra vs. the City of Helam: A Subtle but Meaningful Contrast in Communities and Culture

A couple days before Christmas when it was Joseph Smith's birthday, I reflected briefly upon his life in rather small towns in New York and elsewhere prior to publication of the Book of Mormon. An interesting issue there is the way Joseph described these communities and the sharp contrast between his terminology and the nature of communities in his environment relative to what we find in the Book of Mormon.

I recently discussed the nature of Book of Mormon communities and their relationship to both communities in Joseph’s days and those of ancient Mesoamerica in the article, “Orson Scott Card’s ‘Artifact or Artifice’: Where It Stands After Twenty-five Years,” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture 30 (2018): 253-304. Card's article looked at many subtle issues in the Book of Mormon, drawing upon his experience in the many ways in which the worldview and environment of an author of fiction inevitably reveals much about the culture surrounding the author,  making literary frauds very difficult to pull off. Among the many issues considered by Card is the difference in social and neighborhood relationships between American society and that of the Book of Mormon and Mesomaerica.

Card observed that kinship and lineage were dominant social factors in Mesoamerica and the Book of Mormon, in contrast to American society. Card also considers the nature of employment, where the Book of Mormon suggests that agriculture and other economic activities were highly communal or under direction of elites in contrast to the way people pursued employment in Joseph’s day. Further, Card was impressed with the “instant cities” that Captain Moroni created. Alma 50 describes Moroni’s frenetic city-building activities, including the way he “began a foundation of a city” named Moroni (Alma 50:13) and also “began the foundation for a city” named Nephihah (Alma 50:14) among other cities that he built in a short period. This seems bizarre if read from the perspective of Joseph’s environment but is plausible from a Mesoamerican perspective, as Card argues and as we discuss further below in light of more recent research.

Since 1993 there has been further investigation in the field of Mesoamerican neighborhoods and the relationship between rural households and urban centers. A relevant book from 2012 is Neighborhood as a Social and Spatial Unit in Mesoamerican Cities by M. Charlotte Arnauld, Linda R. Manzanilla and Michael E. Smith, eds. (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2012). The book begins with a detailed review article by Michael E. Smith and Juliana Novic, “Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Mesoamerica” (pp. 1-26), discussed below. Also of interest in the same volume is the chapter of Gary M. Feinman and Linda M. Nicholas, “Compact Versus Dispersed Settlement in Pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica: The Role of Neighborhood Organization and Collective Action” (pp. 132-55), which examines ancient Mesoamerican societies in terms of social structures, looking at the dispersed, agrarian communities and more compact communities, and examining the impact of population density on political structures. Neighborhood ties and structures became especially important in forms of rule more corporate or collective with shared power and “broadened voice,” for neighborhoods would be the focal point for such collaborative action. The work of Feinman and Nicholas may be helpful in contemplating what the Book of Mormon may mean when it speaks of the role of “the voice of the people” in decision making and politics.

Smith and Novic in the introductory chapter of the volume discuss the diverse nature of neighborhoods and district organizations in ancient Mesoamerica, where urban centers were much more sparsely populated than large cities in the Old World:
Since the publication of Bullard’s paper, several archaeologists have discussed Lowland Maya settlement clusters, but without considering their possible role as urban neighborhoods (e.g., Ashmore 1981; Pyburn et al. 1998). The first to associate [Lowland Maya settlement] clusters with neighborhoods was Cynthia Robin (2003: 330–331), who notes that “neighborhood focused research is perhaps the least investigated direction of Maya household archaeology” (p. 331). Perhaps Mayanists tended to avoid the topic of neighborhoods because that concept was associated with the crowded cities of ancient Mesopotamia or the Islamic world. Yet, the low density tropical cities of the Maya manifest a very different kind of urbanism (Arnauld and Michelet 2004), one that Roland Fletcher (2009) called “low density agrarian based urbanism.” (Smith and Novic, “Neighborhoods and Districts in Ancient Mesoamerica,” 11–12.)
The systems described seem to be compatible with Book of Mormon structures, where nobles and elites still wielded influence at various levels of society, with kings under kings among the Lamanites or lesser judges under higher judges in Nephite society. Nobles and elites wielded influence while also representing somehow and sometimes “the voice of the people.”

The low density of urban population resulted in unclear transitions from hamlet or neighborhood to city, allowing for the kind of “instant cities” that impressed Orson Scott Card as another way in which the Book of Mormon revealed a type of society foreign to Joseph Smith. The ability of military commanders to create entire new fortified cities in critical areas is a foreign concept to American society but makes sense in a society accustomed to forming cities from sparsely populated areas based on the model of “low-density agrarian-based urbanism.” The low density areas in a particular region could be unified under control of a military leader or other elite leader to create an instant low-density agrarian-based urban center (“instant city”) that might only need some of Moroni’s earthen banks for fortification to provide military advantage.

In Mormon’s Codex, Sorenson has pointed out that the term for “city” in Mesoamerica “was applied on a conceptual, not just a functional basis” (John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Provo, UT: Neal A. Maxwell Institute, 2013), 298). Further, cities there “seem to have been planned and designated as such from their founding” (ibid., 297–98). Sorenson notes the parallel to Alma’s “city” of Helam that was designated as such with a population of only about 450 people (ibid., 295). Small agrarian gatherings in strategic areas likewise could easily have been turned into “instant cities” by Captain Moroni to support military goals, consistent with Card’s observation on a Book of Mormon phenomenon inconsistent with Joseph Smith’s environment.

Incidentally, the units of town and village are both mentioned in the Book of Mormon but only twice in Mormon 4 and 5, while the unit of city has about 400 mentions. Joseph’s life was spent in villages and towns. In his own history, he writes that he was born in the town of Sharon in Vermont (Joseph Smith—History 1:3) and then later moved to Manchester, which he calls a village (Joseph Smith—History 1:51). We also read that Martin Harris was “a resident of Palmyra township” (Joseph Smith—History 1:61). Palmyra had around 600 people when Joseph’s family moved there (Donald L. Enders, “‘A Snug Log House’: A Historical Look at the Joseph Smith Sr., Family Home in Palmyra, New York,” Ensign (Aug. 1985)), but thanks in part to the opportunities created by the Erie Canal, its population had grown to about 4,600 by 1825 (Bob Lowe, “A Brief History Of Palmyra,” PalmyraNY.com, 1998).

The township of Palmyra was much larger than Alma’s city of Helam and perhaps much larger than the “instant cities” Captain Moroni founded or organized. The Book of Mormon terminology as well as the curious ability to found cities almost instantly is outside of Joseph Smith’s environment and culture but consistent with a Mesoamerican city. Further, the concept of “cities” among Native Americans and especially large, advanced cities like Zarahemla can be considered outside of Joseph’s environment and outside of the common knowledge of his day, though earlier works from European writers such as Alexander von Humboldt made some aspects of Mesoamerican antiquities known in better educated circles (see my LDSFAQ page, “Alexander von Humboldt and the Book of Mormon: What Could Joseph Smith Have Gleaned?

As for the apparent similarities to Joseph’s culture, Card addresses one of the most common issues pointed to by critics, the selection of judges. Some read “voice of the people” and think of ballot boxes and a highly egalitarian society with separation of powers according to the US Constitution, but this suspiciously modern feature turns out to be based on imported assumptions. A more careful reading of the text indicates that something much different than American elections and American democracy took place in Nephite society. Card urges us to look again:
But in the Book of Mormon, the judge not only judges people but also enforces the law and directs the gathering of taxes and supplies and sending them in support of the armies. Not your normal, traditional role. He enforces traditional law, but when new laws are needed, the judge makes them! Where in American life of his time would Joseph Smith have seen this?

How are these judges selected? We hear of almost no contested elections. On the contrary, judges seem to nominate their successors. With few exceptions, the judge serves until death, and is usually succeeded by a son or brother, or by a member of a family that has previously held the judgeship. Now, except for the Adamses, there were no dynasties in Joseph Smith’s America.

The judges actually function as elected kings. The old pattern of government still endured, they just had a different method of choosing the guy in charge. Mormon pointed out the difference, which meant he stressed the election of the judges by the voice of the people, never questioning that authority should stay in only a few aristocratic families and that judges should have monarchical powers. Far from being a mistake in the Book of Mormon, this is one of the places where the Book of Mormon makes it clear that it does not come from 1820s American culture. Even the best of hoaxers would have made the judges far more American.
Brant Gardner’s later treatment of the “voice of the people” and the role of judges in the Book of Mormon would show much greater affinity for Mesoamerican concepts than for the democracy of the young United States (Brant Gardner, Traditions of the Fathers: The Book of Mormon as History (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2015), 245–53).

A recent observation related to the reign of judges and the “voice of the people” in the Book of Mormon comes from new evidence that ancient Mesoamerica cultures sometimes had less autocratic and more collective or “democratic” rule. This recent discovery seems to greatly amplify the role of collective rule mentioned above by Feinman and Nicholas.33 Science writer Lizzie Wade reports:
Now, thanks in part to work led by … Richard Blanton, an anthropologist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, Tlaxcallan is one of several premodern societies around the world that archaeologists believe were organized collectively, where rulers shared power and commoners had a say in the government that presided over their lives.
These societies were not necessarily full democracies in which citizens cast votes, but they were radically different from the autocratic, inherited rule found — or assumed — in most early societies. Building on Blanton’s originally theoretical ideas, archaeologists now say these “collective societies” left telltale traces in their material culture, such as repetitive architecture, an emphasis on public space over palaces, reliance on local production over exotic trade goods, and a narrowing of wealth gaps between elites and commoners.

“Blanton and his colleagues opened up a new way of examining our data,” says Rita Wright, an archaeologist at New York University in New York City who studies the 5000-year-old Indus civilization in today’s India and Pakistan, which also shows signs of collective rule. “A whole new set of scholarship has emerged about complex societies.”
“I think it’s a breakthrough,” agrees Michael E. Smith, an archaeologist at Arizona State University (ASU) in Tempe. “I’ve called it the most important work in the archaeology of political organization in the last 20 years.” He and others are working to extend Blanton’s ideas into a testable method, hoping to identify collective states solely through the objects they left behind. (Lizzie Wade, “It wasn’t just Greece: Archaeologists find early democratic societies in the Americas,” Science (website), March 15, 2017)
Blanton’s paper has this intriguing abstract:
During the central Mexican late Postclassic period, the Aztec Triple Alliance became the largest and most powerful empire in Mesoamerica. Yet ancient Tlaxcallan (now Tlaxcala, Mexico) resisted incorporation into the empire despite being entirely surrounded by it and despite numerous Aztec military campaigns aimed at the defeat of the Tlaxcaltecas. How did it happen that a relatively small (1,400 km²) polity was able to [Page 270]resist a more powerful foe while its neighbors succumbed? We propose a resolution to this historical enigma that, we suggest, has implications for the broader study of social and cultural change, particularly in relation to theories of state formation and collective action. We find it particularly interesting that the Tlaxcaltecas abandoned a key tenet of traditional Nahua political structure in which kingship was vested in members of the nobility, substituting for it government by a council whose members could be recruited from the ranks of commoners. To achieve such a significant deviation from typical Nahua authority structure, the Tlaxcaltecas drew selectively from those aspects of Nahua mythic history and religion that were consistent with a comparatively egalitarian and collective political regime. (Lane F. Fargher, Richard E. Blanton, and Verenice Y. Heredia Espinoza, “Egalitarian Ideology and Political Power in Prehispanic Central Mexico: The Case of Tlaxcallan,” Latin American Antiquity, 21, no. 3 (September 2010): 227–51)
We look forward to further research into the intriguing possibilities of collective government in portions of the ancient Americas, including systems that may be closer to Book of Mormon times. Meanwhile, what was once thought to be a dead-giveaway of the Book of Mormon’s modern origins, the reign of judges with their reliance on “the voice of the people,” upon closer scrutiny is not only radically different than what Joseph knew but now appears to be an authentic ancient artifact (albeit an exceptional one) of Mesoamerica, not a fruit of Joseph’s artifice. For future scholars to better understand Book of Mormon “democracy,” they would be wise to use a lens focused on ancient Mesoamerica and emerging research on ancient political systems there.

Instant cities and tiny gatherings labeled "cities" don't reflect Joseph's worldview. They don't reflect his own use of language nor the ways of his culture and era. But they are consistent with what we are slowly learning about the way communities operated in ancient Mesoamerica. Ditto for the political system responsive to the "voice of the people" that is not American-style democracy. These subtle details of Mesoamerica and the relationship or lack thereof between the communities of the Book of Mormon and Joseph's environment are worth considering as we further investigate the increasingly remarkable and ever subtle Book of Mormon.