Columns Jana Riess: Flunking Sainthood Opinion

Which Mormon practices lead to increased spiritual experiences?

The Next Mormons Survey has shown that prayer and scripture study are the two spiritual practices that correlate most highly with Mormons saying they feel close to God. (Photo: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2013 Intellectual Reserve Inc.)

Mormons tend to connect certain behaviors—tithing, daily prayer, regular church attendance, and keeping the Word of Wisdom, for example—with greater spirituality and connection to God. People who are living righteously, the thinking goes, retain the privilege of having the Holy Ghost with them at all times. They are more in tune with the Lord.

Does this “if-then” relationship bear up under scrutiny? Do some behaviors correlate with experiencing a stronger personal relationship to God?

To find out, Benjamin Knoll analyzed the Next Mormons Survey data with this particular question in mind. And if you’ve been following our rollout of other findings from the NMS, you won’t be surprised that the answer is both yes and no. — JKR

 

A guest post by Benjamin Knoll

In the 2016 Next Mormons Survey, we asked more than 1,150 self-identified Mormons in the United States to indicate how often they have certain experiences that have been defined by social scientists and social psychologists of religion as measures of “spirituality.” We specifically asked how often they:

  1. feel God’s presence and love,
  2. feel a deep sense of spiritual peace and well-being,
  3. feel a deep sense of wonder and connection with the universe, and
  4. feel guided by God in the midst of daily activities or in answers to prayer.

We then combined responses to these four questions into a single “spirituality scale,” with those who say that they “never” feel any of those things at one end of the scale and those who say that they feel each of them “daily” at the other end of the scale.

Our survey also asked Mormons how often they engage in a variety of activities that the LDS Church encourages its members to do to be “worthy of the Spirit” or that are commonly associated with spiritual worthiness in Mormon culture. We are then able to statistically determine whether those who engage in each activity report more frequent (or infrequent) instances of spiritual experiences, controlling for standard demographic factors such as age, gender, race/ethnicity, education, and income.

The results were mixed: some practices are associated with higher levels of spirituality, and others seemed to make no difference, as we can see here:

RELIGIOUS PRACTICES THAT BOOST SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCES RELIGIOUS PRACTICES UNRELATED TO SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCES
Personal prayer (45% increase)

 

 

Observing the Word of Wisdom (abstaining from coffee, tea, alcohol, and illicit drugs)
Personal scripture study (16% increase) Attending church
 

Talking about God/religion with others (14% increase)

Paying tithing
 

Volunteering time to serve others at church (5% increase)

Having a current temple recommend
Not having tattoos
Avoiding R-rated movies recently (last 6 months)
Avoiding explicit pornography recently (last 6 months)
Avoiding music with sexually explicit recently (last 6 months)

 

As you can see from the column on the left, some religious behaviors correlate—either strongly or modestly—with greater spirituality. Those who say that they have personal prayer every day have levels of spirituality 45% higher than those who never engage in personal prayer. This is roughly equivalent to increasing the frequency of spiritual experiences from “never” to “once or twice a month” or “seldom” to “at least once a week” among respondents in our survey.

Those who hold personal scripture study and share their feelings about God and religion with others on a daily basis enjoy a 16% and 14% boost in their levels of spirituality, respectively, compared to those who never have private scripture study or talk about God with other people. (This is approximately the same as boosting spiritual experiences from monthly to weekly or from weekly to daily.) Serving others and volunteering in a church calling on a weekly basis results in a modest 5% boost in levels of spirituality compared to those who do not.

Otherwise, Mormons who don’t attend church, keep the Word of Wisdom, pay tithing, or have a temple recommend report having spiritual experiences just as often as those who faithfully observe LDS standards on each of those items. The same is true for those who watch or listen to explicit media—doing so does not seem to have any damaging effects on their self-reported levels of spirituality.*

Mormons may not be surprised to see that those who report stronger spiritual experiences are also those who pray, study their scriptures, and share their faith with others. Prayer is especially prone to make a difference in the day-to-day spiritual lives of Mormons.

But they may be surprised to learn that other practices don’t seem to matter nearly as much. Mormons are strongly counseled to keep the Word of Wisdom, attend their church meetings faithfully, donate 10% of their income to the church, hold a current temple recommend, and avoid explicit media. LDS leaders regularly counsel their members that each of these, among whatever other salubrious effect they might have, is needed to be worthy of the Spirit and the “constant companionship” of the Holy Ghost.

It seems, however, that for many U.S. Mormons, their perceived levels of God’s presence and the guidance of the Holy Spirit does not depend on those outward actions.

 

* These results also hold when limiting the measure of spiritual experiences to only how often someone says that they “feel God’s presence and love,” or only “feeling guided by God in the midst of daily activities.”

 


Other posts with results from the Next Mormons Survey:


Benjamin Knoll is is the John Marshall Harlan Associate Professor of Politics at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and the co-author of the new book She Preached the Word: Women’s Ordination in Modern America, which is now available from Oxford University Press.

About the author

Jana Riess

Senior columnist Jana Riess is the author of many books, including "The Prayer Wheel" (2018) and "The Next Mormons: How Millennials Are Changing the LDS Church," which will be published by Oxford University Press in March 2019. She has a PhD in American religious history from Columbia University.

2 Comments

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  • I read your aggregate metrics of your convenience sample. Without the survey instrument, the numbers are meaningless. With the instrument, it is (at best) a collection of opinions from the survey population. If you wish to evaluate whether a practice is effective, you don’t poll the “white belts”. You observe or consult the masters of the craft. If you poll people not eager to obey the teachings of the restored Church of Jesus Christ, you will find that reflected in the poll, the population, or the methodology. Your respondents are obviously not in harmony with Church teachings, so the poll only reveals information about the pollsters and their confederates.

  • Some BYU students once sought to identify spiritual brain activity and accidentally discovered that “religious euphoria” and “porn arousal” affect the same part of the human brain the same way. That probably explains why so many Utah LDS turn to the “flesh” instead of the “spirit” online.

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