Correlation and Dogmatism: A Sociological Analysis

September 23, 2013    By: Jeff G @ 10:07 am   Category: Theology,Truth

Consider the following (and somewhat lengthy) sociological analysis of those tendencies toward dogmatism which we associate with correlation:

“The dogmatism which subsequently mushrooms among Mormons is thus already half-prepared by the stasis of critical thought inherent in doctrinal form; but this is only a potential for dogmatism which Mormonism shares even with conventional normal science.  If Mormon dogmatism is not a development alien to science itself but a potential it shares with it, why does this potentiality blossom so fully in Mormonism?… 

“Precisely because it is an effort to unite theology and practice to change the world, there is great pressure to present “theology” as a secured basis for action, rather than as problematic and in need of further development.  One cannot ask people to undertake great risks on behalf of uncertain theology.  Mormon theology tends to be taken as given rather than problematic, all the more because its efforts to change the world proceed uniquely through dangerous conflict against powerful forces, and this induces anxiety in those undertaking the struggle.  These anxieties heighten rigidities and increase the need for theological certainty to justify the costs suffered.

“The theology, moreover, tends to become a doctrinal source of group solidarity – i.e., a set of shared beliefs which hold the group together against external threat and internal anxiety, because they are held in common; but insofar as diversity in belief appears, their capacity to fortify group solidarity is impaired.  The combat setting, then, exerts great pressure to suspend critical evaluation of Mormonism, thus freezing it; it fosters a view of the theology as already secured and needing only to be applied, rather than as requiring new researches.  If ‘normal’ academic social science is paralyzed by its need for certainty, never acting because it never knows enough, so that each research ends with a plea for a new one, Mormonism satisfies action’s need for certainty by declaring itself an already proven product and by canonizing its theology, thereby leading to the gloss of anomalies and thus crippling the theology’s capacity for further development.  Most members of Mormon combat groups will, moreover, be rewarded for their … steadfastness, loyalty, and ability to control their anxieties … rather than for their theological sophistication…

“Theologians are thus alienated from their theological property; they can no longer speak the theology independently of church leaders even though the latter may have little or no theological competence…

“Church control over the doctrine heightens theology’s vulnerability to dogmatism, subjecting it to an icy immobilism.  Church control narrows Mormonism down to an instrumental technology for mobilizing power, intensifying the doctrine’s native impulse to resist critical examination of basic issues.  Insofar as the church leadership grounds its authority in its theological competence, any critique of theology must imply a critique of its authority and decisions.”

I suspect that most intellectuals versed in the social sciences would more or less agree with the basic thrust of this argument: that what Mormons call “correlation” is more or less a byproduct of the religion’s organized efforts to engage and gain influence in the world.  Both Mormonism and Science share a potential for dogmatism, but it is the focus on ideas which lead to practice (regardless of whether these ideas are faith-based or supernatural in nature) that lends itself toward dogmatism within the former tradition. In this post, I do not wish to critique or justify this passage (I mostly agree with it), nor do I wish to discuss whether this passage amounts to a criticism or justification of correlation (I think it’s probably a bit of both).

Rather, what I wish to do in this post is present a dilemma which the intellectual must confront.  You see, I have altered the passage above by replacing the words “Marxism”, “party”, “paradigm” and “theory” with “Mormonism”, “church”, “doctrine” and “theology”, respectively.  In other words, this passage was not originally about correlation within the church, but what we might call correlation within intellectual movements which attempt to engage and gain influence in the world through a combination of theory and practice as described in Alvin Gouldner’s The Two Marxisms. In other words, any ideological movement which attempts to gain influence in the world by way of votes, organized protests or public support necessarily lends itself to theoretical corruption and dogmatism.

The dilemma which the intellectual must confront, then, is this:  those who would embrace any such analysis which undermines church practices so as to further their own agendas (be they Marxist, Feminist, etc.) must themselves confront the fact that this same analysis undermines the practices of their own movement.  Put another way, those intellectuals who would use the theoretical spears of sociology in order to poke at church practices according to their Marxist, Feminist, etc. ideologies are themselves impaled upon the same sociological skewers.  Thus, the intellectual is left to decide how much weight such analyses of church correlation is to carry:  on the one hand, to the extent that they are impotent they should not be used at all, but on the other hand, to the extent that they are potent they likewise delegitimize any intellectual movement that would use them.


  1. Yeah, I thought “Mormon combat groups” was a little over the top.

    Despite the friction that the New Mormon History caused in the 70s and 80s, history as a professional discipline has managed to find a place within LDS institutions: there is a Church Historical Department with real historians and researchers and there is a history department full of historians at BYU. But there simply is no institutional home for serious theology within Mormonism. (Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing is a different argument.)

    Comment by Dave — September 23, 2013 @ 2:07 pm

  2. Haha, yeah there were certainly a couple giveaways in there.

    I would suggest that the reason why historical studies are more easily accommodated is that historical facts are not necessarily those ideas which are most closely associated with practice. We are expected to do things for theological reasons more than we are for historical reasons. Indeed, I would suggest that this distinction between theology and history closely mirrors the distinction which Gouldner drew between Marxist science and “normal” science.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 23, 2013 @ 2:16 pm

  3. I’m not sure how you move to from the quote to your attack on intellectuals. Even if we accept your term substitutions (I have a problem with substitution theory with theology, but leaving that aside), what Gouldner is saying is that when an organization dogmatises the ideas of its outliers, the outliers end up marginalized

    once a group absorbs the thinking of its intellectuals and dogmatizes itself, the intellectuals lose the ability to freely intellectualize. Dogmatism, correlation, whatever, kills free thought.

    All that tells me is that we should push away from correlation, not abandon intellectual critiques.

    Comment by DavidF — September 23, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

  4. That is not really what he is saying.

    He is saying that any organization which is based in the marriage of ideas and actions finds themselves in a situation where practical action must constrain the development, refinement and dissolution of internal contradictions within their system of ideas. It is for this reason that correlated Mormonism and Marxism (and others!) have their obvious and practically intractable contradictions within them. And since these systems both agree that action is more important than ideas, it is the latter which must give way to the former… as it should be. In other words, Gouldner is describing correlation as a appropriate and rational response to practical necessities.

    “All that tells me is that we should push away from correlation, not abandon intellectual critiques.”

    Where is this idea more likely to come from, Mormonism or Marxism? Marx was a huge advocate of intellectual critique and Joseph Smith was not. You have thus found yourself trapped in the Marxist dogma described in the post wherein intellectual critique is always to be pointed outward at others, but not one’s own group.

    In other words, assuming that the quote from Gouldner is right in saying that ideological organizations aim critique toward others and not themselves, and assuming that you think critique should point away from intellectuals and toward the church rather than the other way around, then it must be that you are in the intellectual camp rather than the Mormon camp.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 23, 2013 @ 4:18 pm

  5. Nope. I’m definitely not a Marxist, nor do I fall in that camp. I don’t see why intellectual critique can’t be pointed at everyone, including the person making it. That seems to span both camps, no?

    Comment by DavidF — September 23, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

  6. At any rate, there are two interpretations open here, and I see no reason to favor the one which criticizes and undermines the church.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 23, 2013 @ 4:33 pm

  7. For starters, I wasn’t necessarily calling you a Marxist, although it seem clear to me that the genealogy of many of your ideas trace back through Marx.

    Secondly, the point isn’t that organizations and movements “can’t” critique themselves, but rather that those which do, don’t last very long and/or very gain very much influence. Again, practical necessity require the repression of doubts and internal contradictions.

    Finally, in the same way that there is (supposedly) no reason why intellectual critique cannot be aimed at any and everything, so too there is no reason why religious denouncement cannot equally be applied to any and everything. In other words, the faith-based Iron-Rodder seems equally justified in denouncing intellectual critiques as the intellectual is in critiquing religious denouncements. The question which we all answer in our everyday lives, then, is which direction are we pointed?

    Comment by Jeff G — September 23, 2013 @ 4:41 pm

  8. Well done. Eric Hoffer would endorse this post.

    Comment by Roger — September 23, 2013 @ 7:44 pm

  9. No worries Jeff. We’ve all bought into Marxist ideas on one level or another (well, most of us).

    I’m not sure I agree with Gouldner or your analysis of Gouldner. Sure, organizations must dogmatize to some extent out of pragmatic concerns, but self critiquing and un-dogmatization don’t necessarily unravel an organization. Case in point: Vatican II. Some conservative elements were reaffirmed, but much of what Vatican II sought to do, and successfully managed, was to somewhat decentralize and dispel with dogmatic principles that weighed the church down.

    People, like me for example, might help prepare that kind of a positive shift in Mormon dogmatism by helping to separate beliefs that, by virtually every measure, appear uninspired or out-of-date.

    As a qualifier, I’ll give you that some people go overboard. One of my favorite sayings is that an honest skeptic is skeptical of himself. Intellectuals need to doubt themselves as much as anyone (and too many don’t), but I’m not sure that this either/or paradigm, where you’re either intellectual or a faithful person, helps. I think that all it manages to do is create a framework where mistakes can be absorbed and dogmatized into the church, but no one can challenge them without being seen as a heretic trying to bring the whole church down. That’s both too extreme, and I don’t think it reflects reality.

    Comment by DavidF — September 24, 2013 @ 10:59 am

  10. I agree that framing things as intellectual vs faithful is a bit tendentious. No doubt, most people in the ‘nacle have a bit of both, but the question comes down to how these values, these mental tools are prioritized. Are you one of the faithful intellectuals or the intellectual faithful? The two sets do not overlap and thus choices must be made. For example, if you are going to focus time and energy critiquing something, what will it be? Somebody who is concerned with building the church, will not spend their time critiquing it in the same way that intellectual who were concerned with Marxist objectives did not spend their time critiquing Marxism. Thus, when you spend your time critiquing church policy, you clearly show what side your bread is buttered on.

    Of course the intellectual has all sorts of sneaky and disingenuous ways of getting past these obstacles. One tactic is to steady the ark by trying to “improve” the church through internal critique, thus beating its “real” enemies on the outside to the punch. This would be like a religious person trying to present a faith-based critique of intellectuals from within academia, something which is clearly against their rules. So too is an intellectual critique of Mormonism from within against its rules. Within the church we are to search, ponder and pray about our personal relationship to the organization and at no time are we to critique, correct, protest or otherwise point out how the church is not living up the standards which we set for it. We have no authority to do that.

    Your entire comment belies your commitment to intellectual values.

    -You point out that intellectual critique “doesn’t necessarily unravel organization” and that it “might help”, and it is these possibilities that allow you to continue critiquing. Whereas a faith-based approach would acknowledge that since these are only possibilities (at best) the best course would be to leave such things to God and those who He has duly authorized to worry about them.

    -You say that some ideas and beliefs are uninspired or out of date. But by whose standards are you measuring? “Virtually every measure” only seems to mean “virtually every intellectual measure” in this context. A more faith based approach would acknowledge that how these beliefs appear to us limited creatures has little bearing on their actual virtues.

    -Similarly, you suggest that there are “mistakes” which are dogmatized in the church which we ought to be able to challenge. This sentence makes no sense but from an intellectual standpoint. Who says that they are mistakes? Who says that we are authorized to challenge them? These very acts – thinking that we are authorized to identify and challenge mistakes – blur the distinction between those who are and are not authorized to lead the church and thus undermine its leadership. I know that this isn’t what you’re trying to do, but this is what happens all the same.

    Again, intellectual critique is a set of mental tools which can have many effects, both intended and unintended, foreseeable and unforeseeable, observable and unobservable. To be sure, any intellectual worthy of the name can spend their time focusing on the intended consequences (which they obviously approve of) by framing the issue exclusively in those terms. For example, if somebody doesn’t approve of the feminist movement, the only possible reason for their disapproval must be that they don’t care enough about women and all attempts to frame the issue differently (undermining priesthood authority) are merely attempts at obscuring their misogyny. Wrong. Even if I agree with results which you intend to bring about, doesn’t mean that there won’t be results which are unintended, unforeseen or even unobservable in this life. And even if you could assure yourself that all of these things were taken into account, the intellectual is STILL not authorized to make those decisions.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 24, 2013 @ 12:08 pm

  11. An answer to this this comment probably deserves a post in its own right. But I’m in the mood to post on other things for a while, so I’ll relent.

    Comment by DavidF — September 25, 2013 @ 9:51 am

  12. You’re probably right. No doubt you’ll have plenty of opportunity to respond in future posts and comments and I don’t think there’s any rush here.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 25, 2013 @ 10:43 am