Beyond Belief 

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Lauding a competitor is rarely easy. But this much must be said: Few local media stories have gotten as much attention as The Salt Lake Tribune’s recent series about Utah’s declining share in its most famous commodity, the Mormons. Thanks to a thorough scouring of public records, we now know that, barring a reversal of current trends, members of the LDS Church may reach minority status in Utah by 2030.

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You could hear the hand-wringing of church leaders even as you read the series: the fact that Pentecostals and other Christian sects grow at a faster clip than our own state religion, the hard math of church membership roles, all that talk of not being “excluded” from the predominant community, but not being “invited” either.

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It was the sort of story everyone downplays, each for completely individual reasons. For some Mormons, nothing stings like pride pierced. Enlightened nonmembers like to pretend religion at the local level hardly matters. Even if it does, we must nurture a belief in our community that it doesn’t. At the same time, everyone knows damned well it most certainly was a story. Beliefs have consequences, and the vast majority of Americans take their beliefs in the form of organized religion.

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City Weekly didn’t give this development the scope or treatment of the Tribune. But we were at least cognizant of it in Nov. 13, 2003, when then staff writer Jake Parkinson penned “Gentile Avenue,” a story about the combination of three LDS stakes into two and the declining LDS population in the city’s historic Avenues district. Today, the shrinking LDS population in the Avenues, not to mention Sugar House, is hardly a secret. Nevertheless, at the time one letter lambasted our story as yet another example of City Weekly bringing “religion to an issue where it does not belong.”

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Problem is, it’s precisely because religion ends up in places where it doesn’t belong that it will always be an issue. Far beyond mere belief, religion is also a nationalist and ethnic construct. Ask anyone who’s ever lived in Belfast, Belgrade, Beirut or even … Salt Lake City. When people aren’t killing each other over religion, we still use it for drawing lines around each other, and ourselves. You’re not “excluded,” after all. You’re just not “invited.” It’s not discrimination, mind you. Weak creatures that they are, people feel more comfortable in the company of others more like themselves.

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There’s precious little evidence that religious people fare any better in the ethical arena than atheists. Serial killer Ted Bundy converted to the LDS faith. The Catholic Church pays restitution to children molested by priests, and Wichita’s BTK killer was president of his Lutheran Church council.

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Religion rarely heals dischord. Like social classes of old, its ability to endow the believer with a sense of superiority is undisputed. And like most feelings of superiority, those feelings rest on shaky foundations. So when we talk about religion, we’re not really talking about religion. We’re talking about psychology and the innermost recesses of individual and collective egos.

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When a man approached the famed eighth-century Islamic cleric Hasan al-Basri for a religious debate, Hasan said, “I know my religion, if you’ve lost yours, go and look for it.” If everyone kept religion closer to his or her heart, and away from others, it might have found its rightful place at last. That would be a story.

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