World of Warcraft vs. Mormonism

Peggy Fletcher Stack, who always has something to say, included the following quote in a recent article:

“Mormonism is maturing into a robust world religion capable of sustaining a diversity of perspectives and viewpoints.”

Parts are true and untrue. I’d say Mormonism as a cultural movement is capable of handling diversity, but the LDS Church is rather more brittle. There will be considerable struggle between the two, and likely some degree of separation between them over time. More interesting to me is the claim that Mormonism is a robust world religion. Most people in the world know very little about Mormonism, and only about .2% of the global population can be claimed as “Mormon” to some degree, including baseball baptisms, lapsed members and closeted apostates. (If you factor in only active members, that percentage drops to .06%) Terms like “robust” are a matter of perspective, but I can’t help but think of LDS growth as rather anaemic when I compare it to a much younger community like World of Warcraft.

World of Warcraft

  • Founded: 2004
  • Number of Members: 11.5 million+ paying subscribers
  • Number of active members: nearly 11.5 million
  • Hours per day per user: 3.5, or 25 hours per week (reference)

LDS Church

  • Founded: 1830
  • Number of Members: 13 million claimed
  • Number of active members: approx. 4 million (reference)
  • Hours per day per user: Varies. Depending on the calling, an active LDS member can spend as little as 5 hours per week (Sunday activity plus occasional midweek activity) or as many as 40+. An active LDS teenager will spend a comparable amount of time on church as a Warcraft user does on the game: 5 hours a week in seminary, 2 or three hours for a weekly youth activity, 3 hours for Sunday meetings, a few hours for Family Home Evening and family prayers, a few more hours for weekend activities and service projects, and a few more hours for personal scripture study and prayer.

I was not able to find direct stats from Blizzard Entertainment, but most sites I found analysing Warcraft usage estimate that 90% of Warcraft users play daily, and almost all of them play weekly. (If only Mormonism had that kind of activity rate.) This means that there are nearly ten million very active Warcraft players in the world. There are only around four million active Mormons. To put that in perspective, Mormonism has a global marketshare comparable to that of Puerto Rico and Lebanon. Countries like Ireland (4.5 million) and Denmark (5.5 million) have populations significantly larger than the LDS Church. With somewhere around four million actively participating members globally, Mormonism does not look robust compared to Christianity (2 billion+) or Islam (1 billion+). It’s just another subculture, one that has fewer active members than a single video game.

Christianity would have remained a subculture of Judaism had the Roman Empire not given it a marketshare boost by mandating it as the state religion. Islam would have been just another stone-worshipping folk faith had it not aggressively set out to create an empire. Hinduism, which has enjoyed some degree of state sponsorship, has done decently but never grew much beyond its own borders because it is not imperialistic in nature the way Christianity and Islam are. (source) Every religion that did not embrace imperialism and forced conversions has a very small marketshare. Nice religions finish last.

Size isn’t necessarily indicative of relevance or social impact. Jews outnumber Mormons almost five to one but are still a very tiny slice of the global population. However, the impact of Jewish people on every sphere of first world culture is immeasurable. The modern world would not be what it is without Jews. Mormons haven’t had many years to make similar contributions, and there is no cultural emphasis on scholarship and science the way there is in many schools of Jewish thought. All Mormons have invented so far are television parts and the department store. The only Mormon ever to win a Nobel Prize was an atheist. Jews, by contrast, are highly represented with Nobel honours. Politically, Mormons haven’t learned how to do much more than make a bloody great mess of things on social issues. They haven’t learned to participate in politics with a big-picture view of things that really matter, like AIDS, nuclear weapons, and the environment.

Mormons need more time to figure out exactly what they will be to the world. With the rise of the Internet the religion seems to be starting puberty, and what the religion ends up being may be drastically different from what started out as and what it is now. But I am sceptical that it will ever qualify as a “robust world religion.” I agree with Eliza Snitch’s prophecy that “small, persistent populations of Mormons will continue to exist throughout the world.” It won’t go away and will have its own way of shaping the world, but I don’t believe that Mormonism will ever be better known or understood than Zoroastrianism or Jainism.

The LDS Church is going to have to decide what it is going to do about the growing trend toward Mormon pluralism and the declining importance that the President of the Corporation of the President plays in dictating the will of God. The LDS Church will either adapt or it will shatter as the ground shifts beneath it. As Mormonism grows up, it will realise that it has a similar role to play in the world as a small European nation does. Or, for that matter, World of Warcraft. It’s going to have to be humble about that or it will lose friends and members. But no matter what the fate of the LDS Church, Mormonism in some sense will continue and survive.

The Big Deal

CJ had a question meaty enough to prompt a whole new series of thoughts on my last post:

My ultimate question is, why does the literal truth of history seem to matter so much more to Mormons than to other Christians? Belief in Christianity, as a whole, doesn’t hinge (for most Christians, anyway) on, say, the literal truth about whether Noah built the Ark. Although obviously, for some, it does–but outside of Mormonism, we generally recognize them as, well, a fringe element. Within Mormonism, this absolutism seems to be mainstream. Why?

I think I’ve been able to pinpoint what the big deal is. Here’s how it works in mainstream Christianity:

Belief that Jesus died for humanity’s sins = Salvation

That’s it. There are a few minor details in some sects, such as requiring baptism, but most Christian faiths recognise the Christian baptisms of other sects as valid because really all that matters is faith in Jesus. There can be downsides such as people who are “saved” and also real arseholes, or the stupidly unfair idea that unbaptised babies and people who were never introduced to Christianity go to Hell. (Mormonism is a lot more fair by writing in a bonus round for people in this category.)

Mormonism is a little different:

Belief or non-belief in Christ = Basic Telestial Salvation. Payment (cash and labor) for premium access = Terrestrial or Celestial Salvation and/or Exaltation

It’s a bit more complicated, but one plus is that it’s a lot harder to qualify for Hell than in mainstream Christianity. Really hard, in fact. Mormons believe that the Atonement of Christ covers every human being who isn’t a Son of Perdition. That definition is roughly someone who has a full understanding of God’s plan through the priesthood. (That makes a pretty good case for the idea that there will be no women in Mormon Hell.) Every qualifying human being, from Hitler to Mother Theresa, will be resurrected and at least qualified for the Telestial Kingdom. Though I don’t believe in Mormonism any more, this does make sense to me. I cannot actually conceive of any person, not even a genocidal megalomaniac, whose actions deserve to be punished for all eternity. If people are immortal, there has to be a point where bygones are bygones. Humans are far too stupid to have the consequences for their actions as serious as forever.

So whereas in mainstream Christianity faith in Christ = the same salvation for all believers, in Mormonism the Atonement is akin to gaining admission to a nice dance club. Everyone gets inside and is guaranteed to have a very nice time. However, there are VIP lounges in this massive dance club on two higher levels for those with premium access memberships. There is only one place where you can purchase memberships, and you had to know about it before you got into the club. (If you missed your second chance at the Spirit Prison Information Booth on your way in, tough. You’ll have to enjoy the main dance floor.) Super Elite members flash their Calling and Election Made Sure card and get to go to the über VIP Lounge, where they are taught how to build their own dance clubs on real estate given to them by the club owner. Those in the VIP lounges can descend to party with those with Basic Salvation Access, but the bottom-dwellers can’t get past the bouncers at the stairs because they didn’t pay for a premium membership and don’t know the secret handshakes.

In mainstream Christianity, almost everything is background information — Noah’s Ark, the conquest of Canaan, the Ten Plagues, all of Paul’s epistles — all you have to know is that God loves humanity, Jesus died for humanity’s sins, and if you profess your belief in those things you get into Heaven. Mainstream Christianity is contingent on no fallible, mortal man. So if bits and pieces of the Bible aren’t literal history, it doesn’t matter.

Not so with Mormonism. Joseph Smith was the one who established the rituals necessary for Salvation Plus. He’s the originator and therefore the key. His credibility is vitally important to LDS Church claims regarding the Book of Mormon and temple rituals. If Joseph Smith wasn’t telling the truth, and the historical claims of Mormonism are false, this means lots of Mormons are paying 10% of their income and forty hours a week for access to a VIP lounge that doesn’t exist. They could have been having coffee and pastries after an easygoing one hour meeting per week at a nice Lutheran church and gotten precisely the same deal as every other Christian. If Joseph Smith is lying, then Mormons are wasting a lot of time and energy on what Christians would call the blasphemous notion that God would create something as elitist as VIP lounges in Heaven. Mormon heaven is a capitalist meritocracy. Christian heaven is a bit more socialist.

The doctrinal correctness of polygamy as established by Joseph Smith matters because he did all of the following:

Joseph Smith did all of those things. If he wasn’t being commanded by God, then that makes him a pretty unreliable messenger in terms of a spiritual and religious guide. If he could lie and rape (statutory rape is rape), how can we believe what he said about the Book of Mormon? Someone who did these things today would not be respected as a religious leader; they would be in prison for bigamy and statutory rape. Think of Roman Polanski; an older, charismatic leader tells a young teen that if she grants him sexual favours she’ll be rewarded beyond her wildest expectations. Unless polygamy was ordered by God, Joseph Smith was no different than Polanski. Considering that polygamy was what landed him in Carthage Jail, it would seem that the citizens of Illinois in the 1840’s felt the same.

This is why Mormons spend more time publicly affirming that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and the Book of Mormon is true than they spend on showing gratitude to Jesus. That’s why, unlike Christians, they must defend the historical accuracy of their sacred books — all of them — and pay for access to exclusive information that gains them access to exclusive clubs. If Joseph Smith made it up, that’s quite a rip-off.