Are Moderate Religious Institutions in Decline?

by: Hedgehog

February 27, 2014

“Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand.” (Philippians 4:4-5).

Are we losing moderate religion in our societies? Does it matter? This week the BBC R4 programme Beyond Belief discussed religious decline. Presenter Ernie Rae was joined by the Revd Dr Sam Wells, Professor Linda Woodhead (Sociology of Religion), and Dr Jasjit Singh (research fellow looking at religious transmission). There was an inset interview with Sanderson Jones (co-founder of the Sunday Assembly).

The participants identified and discussed a number of possible causes:

The failure amongst all generations now living to socialise their children in their religion.

Seen as something harder to do with every generation, as more and more people have no experience of a religious institution. It was pointed out that (in Britain) since 1948 the state has taken over many of the caring responsibilities previously filled by the churches, so such socialisation would not have taken place as a matter of course. This is less of a problem in minority religions currently, as the religious institution also serves as a cultural centre, and attendance as a way of establishing identity. There was a suggestion that it would be interesting to see what happens once the muslim/ sikh/ hindu immigrant generation has died, and the vast majority of adherents British born.

Increased mobility resulting in fewer settled communities.

Religion is no longer seen as something in which the community participates together. Individuals will seek out what suits them individually. It was pointed out that many turn to an alternative spirituality in times of stress, trial or illness rather than organised religion.

Young people interact with their faith communities differently.

Are religions concentrating on attendance over adherence? It was suggested that adherence ought to count more, and that it was primarily the religious activists who attended traditional services regularly, whilst life cycle rites were still important to many non-attendees. Should religious institutions be finding other ways to engage adherents?

An over-emphasis on belief.

Whilst belief is seen as important to fundamentalists, this over-emphasis can be to the detriment of the other elements of a religion: group (community), values and rituals. Apparently it isn’t beliefs that usually draw people in, though they can be a deal-breaker.


With so many high quality entertainment options available, the Sunday sermon by a local religious leader has has lost a lot of its former attractions.

Loss of emotional and intellectual engagement with the institution.

People want to feel part of something, but also that they are getting something back from the institution. They want to see serious engagement with issues, but churches are not making enough of an intellectual case, as compared to the atheists.

Loss of trust.

Either in the people encountered in those institutions, or in the institutions themselves. Sam Wells asked whether churches are seeking to be a blessing to people, and whether they are in fact experienced as a blessing. An excellent point I thought.

Moral objection.

Religious institutions do not have a monopoly on human values and can be seen as pompous, paternalistic and puritanical. As society as a whole becomes more ethical and less brutal, extending values to children, women and homosexuals, religions are no longer seen as occupying the moral high ground, but instead have become morally objectionable to many.

In her closing remarks Linda Woodhead suggested that loss of moderate religion from our societies would leave only extremism, fanaticism and totalitarianism, a poor outcome for us all.

As a church we come across the following views on the subject of moderation or temperance:

“In a spiritual sense, temperance is a divine attribute of Jesus Christ. He desires for each of us to develop this attribute. Learning to be temperate in all things is a spiritual gift available through the Holy Ghost. … Being temperate is to use moderation in all things …” Kent D Watson

Still, the wider context of the talk from which the following Elder Oaks quote is taken might also  have some application here.

“Moderation in all things is not a virtue, because it would seem to justify moderation in commitment. That is not moderation, but indifference.” Dallin H. Oaks

However, I think the most important message is this one:

“And no one can assist in this work except he shall be humble and full of love, having faith, hope, and charity, being temperate in all things, whatsoever shall be entrusted to his care.” (D&C 12:8)

  • What constitutes a moderate or temperate religion?
  • Do you agree that moderate religions are important in society?
  • What do you make of the reasons given for religious decline?
  • Do you think the LDS church is currently seen as a moderate religion, or as extreme and fanatical? And why?
  • Is the LDS church losing its more moderate members, and if so why? How might the above reasons be relevant?



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21 Responses to Are Moderate Religious Institutions in Decline?

  1. mark gibson on February 27, 2014 at 12:06 PM

    From 1966 to 1999 I was associated with a denomination that spent decades becoming moderate/diverse/”hip”/”with-it”/non-offensive. Oh, excuse me. There was one segment they didn’t worry about offending; their traditional believers.

    Moderation can be subtle, but not the results. They haven’t experienced numerical growth since the 1970’s, and now are in a spiraling decline.

    Moderation could follow the instruction of the 13th article of faith: “If there is anything virtuous,lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” Not for the sake of being trendy.

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  2. hawkgrrrl on February 27, 2014 at 2:12 PM

    Several of the points above really do seem to resonate for me at least for why I see people falling away:
    1) social programs replacing religion; I think this is particularly poignant for liberals in the church who see government programs as superior to church programs because they have a voice in how money is spent whereas the church spends in an authoritarian manner.
    2) attendance focus. I have wondered about this one. Catholics often adhere, claiming their faith, doing the life rituals, but they don’t attend regularly. I’ve wondered when we will get to that stage in Mormonism. Maybe we are getting there. Tougher to do with a lay clergy.
    3) Over-emphasis on belief. This is IMO a huge problem within Mormonism, although it’s tough to see how anyone would want to live it for the long haul without believing it. But the constant declaration of belief in F&T meetings is something that seems almost insecure.

    But I think the last 3 are the biggest issues:
    4) anti-intellectualism at church. Kids lose interest when people bash science at church, or assume literal belief Bible stories, among other forms of anti-intellectualism. Kids also find the argument that the world is getting worse and worse to be silly and out of touch.
    5) loss of trust. Our focus is too often on what we as a church expect from members, not what they receive. Obviously, it shouldn’t be all about getting, but there has to be something there for people. Otherwise, they can pray on their own. Young people often have not had enough adversity yet to have needed to rely on the church in any meaningful way.
    6) the absolute biggest issue is that the church has lost the moral high ground when compared to society as a whole, at least in places like the US, UK, and other western countries. If people at church are sexist, racist or homophobic, and this is viewed as acceptable or – worse – the norm, we will lose the younger generation. It is a foregone conclusion. Society’s tolerance for these evils is at an end.

    Great post.

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  3. Jeff G on February 27, 2014 at 3:48 PM

    I think there are some fascinating ideas here, but I have to object to the following:

    “As society as a whole becomes more ethical…”

    We’ve certainly become differently moral, but I see no reason to see this as an increase in morality. Since each moral tradition measures the morality of a tradition in terms of its proximity, it should come as no surprise that the ascendant tradition sees society becoming more moral.

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  4. Howard on February 27, 2014 at 5:10 PM

    I dunno Jeff, nuclear disarmament seems to be making earth a safer place to live without being under the anxiety producing threat of nuclear winter. Instead we just enjoyed Olympic Winter Games in Sochi. It sure seems like a giant step closer toward loving our neighbors to me. Why the pessimism?

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  5. Mormon Heretic on February 27, 2014 at 5:41 PM

    If we use violenct deaths as a measure, the world is getting MUCH more righteous. I did a post (unfortunately my graphs are not there any more.) See

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  6. Howard on February 27, 2014 at 7:08 PM

    Religion is a product in order to grow it must appeal to it’s audience. it’s really as simple as that.

    Rick Warren founded Saddleback Church in 1980 after doing a marketing survey to learn why people didn’t attend church. Then he set about making religion relevant to that audience it grew to become the seventh-largest church in the United States. The formula is the inverse of the LDS formula it packages religion to fit it’s members rather than packaging it’s members to fit a religion. Btw, Rick lives off of his book sales and he reverse tithes, that is he lives off of 10% and donated 90% to the church.

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  7. Geoff - A on February 27, 2014 at 7:54 PM

    I think we see ourselves as moderate but anyone who looks at us sees us as extreme/fundamentalist.
    We had Stake conference on Sunday. We have a new mission president, from Utah, speak he told us we were living in a toxic world. It used to be that missionaries were to love the locals- now we call them toxic? He told us we need to be more obedient, and he told us Mormons were happier so we were doing people a favour by converting them.

    The people the church sends out, like mission presidents, and Area presidencies, seem to be bringing extremism to the world, along with the Gospel, but most won’t see past the extremism. Over 80% of people under 40 are happy to have gay marriage, and people who oppose it are not very Christlike.

    We are trying to “sell” the Gospel , but we package it in extreme (by any standard outside Utah) culture much of which is in opposition to the Gospel. Someone looking from the outside can not understand how the Gospel of Christ can be found in the Mormon church.

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  8. Mormon Heretic on February 27, 2014 at 9:05 PM

    Geoff, I know it is often stated on the bloggernacle that Mormons are extreme/fundamentalist, but those making the claim are generally atheist. In reality, much of the reason that Protestants don’t like Mormons and call us “not Christian” is because we are more moderate than they are. Mormons are more liberal concerning abortion, are more moderate about gays in Boy Scouts, are more liberal about the Bible, etc. Some fundamentalist Protestants (think that weirdo in Florida that protests military funerals, and proclaims “God hates gays”, or Branch Davidians, or many other groups) are really extreme. So whether Mormons are extreme or liberal depends squarely on the point of the person making the accusation. I don’t buy at all the argument that “anyone who looks at us sees us as extreme/fundamentalist.”

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  9. Brian on February 27, 2014 at 11:53 PM

    “I don’t buy at all the argument that “anyone who looks at us sees us as extreme/fundamentalist.”

    Tithing required for temple
    Special underwear
    Two year missions are consider a duty of young men
    Have to attend certain church building
    Daily seminary for high school students
    Non member friends and family can’t attend wedding of most active members

    I could go on but it hurts to think about it.

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  10. hawkgrrrl on February 28, 2014 at 9:06 AM

    Non-Mormons of Protestant faiths do often see Mormons as extreme, especially if their own faith is less exacting.

    And many of the “extra” requirements we have really are hard to justify using logic. Word of Wisdom? Fine guideline if you are an alcoholic, but look at how many Mormons are obese. Skipping coffee and tea doesn’t really provide great health benefits to anyone; people who drink both routinely live to a ripe old age with no negative effects beyond coffee breath. And in my experience, Mormons have generally worse eating habits than many non-Mormons.

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  11. Mormon Heretic on February 28, 2014 at 10:56 AM

    Brian, do you lean more toward atheism or fundamentalism? Something tells me atheism, because your list doesn’t seem to take into account other fundamentalist religions.

    *Tithing required for temple

    You’d rather have a collection plate passed around each week, and have the pastor say “There’s not enough money there! Pass it around again!”

    *Special underwear

    You’d rather have women wear burqas (Islam), or have the orthodox hats and special clothing that Jewish men wear.

    *Two year missions are consider a duty of young men

    Jehovah’s Witnesses are supposed to tract every month and there is no 2 year time limit

    *Have to attend certain church building

    You’d rather have segregated black baptist churches and white baptist churches.

    *Daily seminary for high school students

    Send your kids to Catholic Schools instead.

    *Non member friends and family can’t attend wedding of most active members

    Catholics can’t be married by priest if he objects to their worthiness.

    *I could go on but it hurts to think about it.

    Islam and Jews can’t eat bacon. Mormons are liberal there. Islam doesn’t allow alcohol, just like Mormons. Bacon makes us quite liberal, compared to them.

    Give me a break. It hurts to shoot down your comment so easily. Get outside your poor, persecuted world. Like I said, Mormons are liberal compared to some of these religions, but it depends on whether you’re looking at it as an atheist, which it appears that you are.

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  12. Hedgehog on February 28, 2014 at 11:13 AM

    Thank you for the comments eveyone.

    Mark (#1), I have heard similar comments for years, and pondered why this might not have been something raised in the discussion. It occurs to me that those traditional members you mention might possibly be those viewed as fundamentalists or extreme through today’s lens. I think there is a difficult transtition for all religions with the changing world in determoning what are the core principles and doctrines and keeping the population engaged with religion.

    Hawkgrrrl (#2), good points.

    Jeff G (#3), well, writing as a woman I am very glad to be living now, as the rights and protections afforded me are the greatest they’ve ever been.

    Howard (#6), I hadn’t heard of the Saddleback church. An interesting approach.

    MH (#8), I agree to an extent that there is a matter of perspective, where are we viewing from. However, the protestants I know tend to be more liberal than we are (as mentioned by Hawkgrrrl #10), whilst my baptist in-laws are probably about the same as we are in terms of involvement, adherence etc.

    Brian (#9), the wedding is something that isn’t a problem in Britain, as we are required by law to have a civil marriage first, and for church members this generally takes place in the chapel much the same as any church wedding. I don’t know any British members who would be happy to see that change. We are very grateful for the British law. I do agree that most people would see not to be permitted to attend your own child’s marriage as extreme indeed.

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  13. Nate on February 28, 2014 at 3:06 PM

    Moderation means different things to different people. Moderation can mean a kind of middle ground between two opposites. It can be compromise. It can be average. It can be lukewarm, where God spews you out of his mouth. It can be “not running faster than you have strength.” It can be “temperate in all things.”

    I see myself as very moderate, but I don’t know if that is always a good thing. Was Jesus moderate? Maybe sometimes, because he broke some rules willy nilly. But he was extreme in some of his teachings and doctrines, and he did a very extreme thing by letting himself be crucified.

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  14. Brian on February 28, 2014 at 8:29 PM

    MH-as I sat in disciplinary councils having people talk about intimate sexual experiences they had which brought them there, I felt I was in the middle of a barbaric scene. At that time, I felt I was the member of an extreme religion. I don’t dissect and parse the statements on this blog line you do. I just try I post with what little common sense I have. To me, once a TBM and now not, Mormonism has always been an extreme religion. Where it falls on the absolute scale of extremism, I don’t know.

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  15. Jeff G on February 28, 2014 at 9:19 PM

    I hardly want to get lost on a peripheral tangent, H and H, but I would only draw attention to the stripped down morality which is being presupposed in your comments. The idea that promoting safety and happiness while preventing harm and suffering is the most, if not only important aspect of morality illustrates the very objection I brought to the post. Yes, most moralities teach that living righteously leads to happiness, but a great many do not teach that whatever leads to happiness is therefore moral. Women’s rights and nuclear disarmament are indeed huge steps forward when measured from a 21st century (post) modern perspective, but not from many others. Hence, a more neutral position would assert that we have become differently rather than more moral. But that isn’t really what the post is about.

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  16. Mormon Heretic on February 28, 2014 at 11:12 PM


    My heart goes out to you and your experiences, and I do not want to minimize them in any way. I’m sure they have helped you form your opinions, and your sense of justice sounds like it is in the proper place.

    Sunnis and Shiites are blowing each other up in Iraq and Syria. The Taliban are shooting and killing women who don’t wear burqas. Irish Catholics and Protestants have been at war with each other in Northern Ireland for decades. Bosnia and Serbia fought for religious reasons. Muslims are blowing up bystanders at the Boston Marathon. This is extremism. Mormons are no where close to these extremes. This is why I don’t buy the extreme label for Mormons.

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  17. hawkgrrrl on March 1, 2014 at 10:09 AM

    Jeff G – maybe that’s the pride cycle at work, in a weird way. When society becomes safer (rape and lynchings are illegal, people have opportunities to financially support themselves without fear of being killed), people have less adversity. People with less adversity have less reason to turn to religion. As the saying goes “no atheism in foxholes.” When you have no foxholes, little adversity, there is less reason to seek comfort from religion and religious communities. I do think that contributes to the secularization of society, but I’m not sure I would advocate the alternative either. In one’s lifetime, there will come adversity through things like illness, worry for our children, etc. Fear of being killed or raped is not necessary, but younger people haven’t necessarily experienced much adversity in our prosperous society.

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  18. Jeff G on March 1, 2014 at 7:44 PM


    I think that’s a much better way of putting it.

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  19. […] a general trend, America is secularizing, including from moderate religions and the rest, largely because the Religious Right is so intent on making religion look rotten. […]

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  20. Hedgehog on March 2, 2014 at 8:45 AM

    Jeff G (#15), perhaps I am entrenched in the current take on what is/isn’t moral, but I am having difficulty in understanding the core of your objection. What is it you are seeing as a moral good in the past, or that was perceived as a moral good, that isn’t seen so now? Because overall I think I am seeing progress.
    That said, there are some things I can see that are perhaps viewed differently today by the population as a whole. We certainly don’t on the whole have the same ritual killing of animals to be used for food, as a way of honouring that animal (though this is seen in kosher and halal practices), so perhaps many of us are in that sense less ot differently moral. But then there are also many vegetarians and vegans too, not to mention animal rights activists…
    I do think it unfortunate that moral progress has become separated from religious belief and practice, which is part of the point of the post.

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  21. Hedgehog on March 2, 2014 at 8:51 AM

    Nate (#13), well according to the footnote, the Greek for the word translated as moderation refers to gentleness. There’s also a link to temperance. And I think that is generally the meaning in religious discussion, though the elder Oaks link looks at a wider view.

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