Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Religious Disaffiliation and Migration

My work on a new resource from WIIS quickly moving from pre-production to the production phase has given me an opportunity to revisit one of my areas of research interest, that of sociological insights on the processes of religious affiliation and disaffiliation. In the past I have posted on religious disaffiliation among Latter-day Saints, and with this post I take up that issue again with reference to further reflections on the implications of an article by Howard M. Bahr and Stan L. Albrecht, "Strangers Once More: Patterns of Disaffiliation from Mormonism," from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28, no. 2 (1989): 180-200.

Movement from one religious organization to another takes place constantly in a variety of contexts and for a variety of reasons, and the author's of this article frame it in terms of "moving to a new country" and taking "citizenship in a new spiritual country." With this imagery in mind, those who change churches or religious organizations may be likened to immigrants moving from one country to another. But what does this process of religious migration look like under careful analysis?

In their research, Bahr and Albrecht drew upon two state-wide surveys in Utah among Latter-day Saints in the early 1980s and considered the results in light of their further research on religious disaffiliation, the creation of new roles of "ex" identity, and interviews with disaffiliates. Several aspects of their research struck me, not only in what it tells us about religious disaffiliation in general, but also in the implications for evangelicals working among new religions.

First, due to the small number of interview subjects the authors consider their findings "exploratory and illustrative or sensitizing. They are not statistically generalizable in any way." Further, they did "not attempt to generalize [their] findings to religious disaffiliates generally, or even to Mormon disaffiliates." I hope to find more current research done along these lines with a greater survey sample that will permit statistical generalizations, but if no such research has been conducted it needs to be financed and conducted so that we might further understand the process of religious disaffiliation among Latter-day Saints, a topic that has not received nearly as much attention as religious affiliation. In addition, small survey samples related to methodological considerations should remind evangelicals that current claims about migration among Latter-day Saints into evangelicalism are anecdotal in that the research work has yet to be done, and perhaps we too should resist generalizing our understandings of "what works" among Mormon disaffiliates.

Second, Bahr and Albrecht draw upon the role theory work of Helen Ebaugh in her description of the "role-exit process" in a variety of relationship contexts. She defines this as involving four stages that include "doubting one's role commitment, searching for viable alternative roles, experiencing a 'turning point' which reduces dissonance and mobilizes resources to exit, and creating an 'ex-role'". Role theory and the four-part process of role-exiting provide a helpful framework for understanding the process of disaffiliation which might be studied further by evangelicals.

Third, the authors are cautious in the interpretation of disaffiliate accounts of prior group membership. They remind us that such accounts are "flawed" in that they "reflect only a single point of view - that of the disaffiliate - in a social process that involves scores, if not hundreds, of actors." Further, Bahr and Albrecht note that the narratives of disaffiliates often "tend to interpret the past in ways that reduce personal dissonance about the decision taken. As a consequence, the perceptions of a typical former Mormon about an event are likely to be more anti-Mormon." Yet even with these cautions concerning disaffiliate accounts the authors find value in them. They state that "the partiality of the observers is not reason to dismiss their reports as useless" since every human observer involves bias, "preconceptions and perceptual 'screens' which limit the scope and accuracy of his or her observations." These considerations are helpful reminders of the need for caution in interpreting disaffiliate accounts, and that the many negative portrayals of Mormonism in evangelical literature may help "color" disaffiliate accounts even further beyond the individual's experiences and perceptual reconstructions.

Fourth, the patterns and processes of disaffiliation are interesting. Bahr and Albrecht's research indicates that "[a]pparently most apostates from Mormonism were never truly 'in' the faith" in terms of being deeply devoted "fervent followers." Most maintained marginal commitment levels of belief and identification. In terms of the disaffiliation of "fervent followers," while four out of six cited "intellectual defection" as a major part of their exiting process, the authors note that "[f]or even the most committed seeker, the intellectual struggle was only part of the process, since it occurred in a context of personal problems, disappointments and betrayals." This feature of disaffiliation is a reminder that the process involves multiple factors of causation, and that intellectual issues are processed and strongly influenced within the important context of social relationships.

Finally, in the conclusion of the article one of the points raised by the authors is worth noting when they state:
"It is also probable that patterns of disaffiliation observed among former Mormons in Utah are quite unrepresentative of former Mormons elsewhere. Both the dynamics of disaffiliation and the options of reaffiliation are likely to be quite different outside Utah, where Mormons do not represent the 'establishment' and typically are a small minority rather than the majority."

I share the authors' feelings that their research is tantalizing. There is a great deal to be learned about why people join and leave religious groups, particularly in the new or minority religions. I hope that fellow evangelicals express greater interest in the body of academic literature on religious affiliation and disaffiliation that will help us understand the fascinating dynamics involved in people's lives.

1 comment:

Polly Aird said...

You might be interested in my book, "Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector: A Scottish Immigrant in the American West, 1848-1861" for a historical look at disaffection during the 1850s. Some of the reasons still pertain.