The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Cognitive Science of Religion, and CREDS

You are likely aware by now that the Mormon Tabernacle Choir has agreed to perform at the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump on January 20th. Both support and criticism have been expressed for this decision by Church members and by non-members. Critics have largely focused their concern on the way the decision and its framing as a continuation of a proud tradition contribute to the normalization of a thoroughly abnormal incoming presidential administration that rode a belligerent wave of bigotry, lies, and depravity to a controversial electoral win. Trump is no normal president, and to treat him as such not only mitigates our ability to challenge and undermine the threats he explicitly and proudly poses to the safety and freedoms of millions and millions of Americans, but also belies the sincerity of our moral convictions. How can we signal tolerance, if not support, for an unrepentant sexual predator and then stand before our congregations and honestly tell them—with victims of sexual abuse among them, who already feel marginalized and devalued—that sexual sin is the sin next to murder?

Supporters have focused on the way the acceptance signals our patriotism. The performance, they insist, does not honor the incoming president anyway, just the office and the country as a whole. To turn it down would be seen as engaging in partisan politics, against which our Church has an ostensibly firm policy. We have never turned down an opportunity to let our light so shine at a presidential inaugural, and we’re not about to start now. Additionally, this provides a wonderful missionary opportunity. We should not turn down a chance to inspire, influence, and move those around us (and perhaps even Trump himself). These supporters of the decision are not unilaterally supporters of Trump, either. Many loathe the man but see this acceptance as a sign of our prioritization of our responsibility to our nation.

As I’m writing a doctoral dissertation right now that incorporates the cognitive science of religion, I thought I would share some thoughts on how these two reactions can be viewed through that lens. First, some background: in short, the cognitive science of religion, or CSR, applies insights and theories from the cognitive sciences and other related and cognate fields to the study and explanation of patterns of thought and behavior that we commonly call “religious.” Since the 1990s, two broad evolutionary approaches have been common: the more common approach views the features of our conventional conceptualization of religion as the evolutionary byproducts of cognitive features evolutionarily selected for other more generic purposes. The three main features are mentalization (or our ability to perceive and draw conclusions about the presence and intentions of minds in the world around us), teleological reasoning (the propensity to find purpose and reason in the things that exist and happen around us), and mind/body dualism (the intuitive belief that our minds are neither identified with or confined to our physical bodies). These cognitive features mainly served other evolutionary functions, like survival, but also contribute to the production and cultivation of mental representations of deities and other types of supernatural agents. Religion is thus a spandrel (or unintended byproduct) of other cognitive architecture.

The other approach sees religion as an evolutionary adaptation itself, primarily on the grounds that these features were selected because they contributed to greater prosociality, or social robustness and cohesion. One of the main ways they helped social cohesion was to provide mechanisms for high-cost displays of in-group fidelity (with a deity usually as proxy for the group), allowing larger populations that extend beyond normal kin-based groups to maintain trust and mitigate the free-rider problem (the problem of free-loaders who take advantage of the group’s productivity without contributing themselves). Those not willing to invest in the appropriate displays will not be considered part of the in-group. These displays have become known as CREDs, or Credibility Enhancing Displays. In performing these displays, our commitment is perceived as more genuine, which enhances our credibility within as well as outside the group, increasing the cohesiveness of the group and the likelihood of others joining as a result of that degree of cohesion. These can range from fire-walking, to crucifixion, to self-castration, to vows of celibacy, silence, and/or poverty, to food restrictions, to dress and grooming standards, and on and on and on.

These days, these two CSR approaches are coalescing into a coevolutionary model that sees the constituent parts of “religion” as cognitive byproducts that were then adapted for through the mechanisms of cultural evolution as societies grew larger and larger. If you want a very recent and very thorough case for this model, along with over two dozen responses from other CSR scholars, see here.

So how does this relate to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir? Both responses betray the CREDs given priority by the individuals asserting them. For critics of the choir’s performance, sacrificing that publicity in the name of our rejection of racism, sexism, and oppression would be a powerful display of commitment to those standards, both to other members within our group and to those outside the group assessing our sincerity and our values. For supporters of the choir’s decision, the acceptance of the invitation may signal to them commitment to the country, to the office of the presidency, or to conservatism/the RNC (depending on their position vis-à-vis party politics). There is an additional dynamic in play with the latter, however: opposing the choir’s choice represents opposition to the inspiration and infallibility of Church leadership, and so the position we take itself represents a display of our own commitment. Are we willing to subjugate our own feelings about the choir’s performance to our “Follow the Prophet” standard? Those prioritizing this consideration tend to be more authoritarian in orientation, and are largely concerned either with rooting out those considered inadequately committed to the group’s authority structure or with using that authority structure as a rhetorical trump card.

One more theoretical model of CSR is relevant: dual-process cognition. According to this model, our mind operates on a spectrum, with one end largely the purview of our subconscious or intuitive cognition, which is quick, automatic, and tied to those evolutionary predispositions about mental agents, teleology, etc. As we move toward the other end, we have more conscious control of our cognition, and it slows down and incorporates reason, evidence, and other considerations. Conflict frequently occurs between these two types of cognition as thinking unfolds, with two broad approaches possible: rationalization (the use of reason and evidence to try to affirm or defend our intuitive beliefs) or decoupling (the use of reason and evidence to overrule or inhibit our intuitive beliefs). These dynamics have been demonstrated in numerous different ways, with an interesting recent example discussed here.

So these different beliefs about what the choir is signaling are all in conflict with each other as different members of the Church with different cognitive predispositions, understandings of our ethical priorities, and convictions about the relationship of the Church to the United States, try to apply their reason to either rationalizing or decoupling their intuitions and their conscious ideological frameworks. We either prioritize our values related to the oppression/abuse of marginalized classes, our values related to patriotism, or our values related to the infallibility/authority of Church leaders. The second priority is inarguably not given priority in the literature and rhetoric of the Church and its leadership, but we have become so thoroughly integrated into the conservative evangelical American worldview that it has become an undeniably central part of Latter-day Saint self identity for many. To assert that the LDS Church actively avoids all displays of partisanship in light of this is demonstrably untrue, but this is the worldview I think has become intuitive for many, and so there are many who are hard at work rationalizing this, with concerns for authority or the infallibility of leadership frequently buttressing it. The assertion that the inauguration is a celebration of democracy and the office of the presidency, and not Trump himself, is an example of another factually incorrect attempt to rationalize that intuition.

I, for one, proudly and absolutely unapologetically prioritize standing against the oppression and abuse of minorities, women, and the poor. I have relationships with victims of abuse who already feel marginalized and devalued in the Church, and seeing the choir further marginalize them in the interest of celebrating democracy, maintaining tradition, or not appearing partisan has been especially dehumanizing. Donald Trump is a self-described unrepentant sexual predator who has repeatedly asserted intentions to facilitate grotesquely racist, sexist, xenophobic, and generally hateful, violent, and destructive legislation. His elevation to the presidency has already catalyzed a spike in hatred and a scurrying to exploit and protect the mainstreaming and normalization of that hatred. I believe this is the greatest threat to our nation and to its citizens that our generation has ever faced, and I will not participate in its normalization, much less its celebration, in any sense whatsoever. If you are LDS and you’ve made it this far in this post, consider where your priorities are placed, whose wellbeing is most important to you, and how you may have been trying to rationalize things.


9 responses to “The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Cognitive Science of Religion, and CREDS

  • Howard Pepper

    Daniel, I’m surprised I don’t see other comments here yet (tho I may not be looking correctly)… excellent article. Unfortunately, as you seem to hint at the end, the people who most need to see and grasp it probably haven’t and won’t. This is a major problem much broader than with LDS members. Even in my well-educated (generally) and progressive denomination, the United Church of Christ, I don’t seem to find a lot who are “critically engaged” (thinking on a deeper level, etc.). I’m trying to do my small part re. that, and to advance a kind of “psychology of religion”, within which is the important sub-category of cog. sci. of religion.

    I imagine you are aware of this theorist, but other readers may not be: Ken Wilber (“er”). In his broad and deep accounting of reality and the human developmental process (most thorough and documented model I’m aware of), he speaks often of the controlling influence of the “cognitive line” of development, while recognizing it is not always “in control” relative to emotional, cultural and other factors. That is, to me, why dealing with the history and ongoing development of ideas, belief-systems, etc., is so fascinating. And so important.

    Finally, you’re onto something important around this “…we have become so thoroughly integrated into the conservative evangelical American worldview that it has become an undeniably central part of Latter-day Saint self identity for many…”. I’ve noted this, and, in hind-sight, consider it “predictable”. I don’t pay close attention to LDS issues and development but had a close friend who had become LDS in later life and passed last year. Between that and general awareness of the US church and political scene, I could see that increasing integration for the LDS with broader culture (and alliances with similar traditions and values such as Evangelicalism) probably has come both because of WANTING broader influence and acceptability and a RESULT of successes in it. The very creation of a high quality, world-touring choir I’ve long seen as one among several moves to become more recognized and respected in American culture. I’m glad thinking, open LDS members like you are pointing out things like you are, which are challenging to the broader, politically conservative set of people who fail to see that support of people like Trump, as well as much of the Tea Party agenda goes directly against many of the most core principles they supposedly hold to. (In the case of Trump, they’ve been seriously conned, as I think they may already have begun to see, but which will become abundantly clear very soon, to virtually everyone. But it’s hard to admit when one has been duped.)

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Howard! I agree that it’s so important to get more people engaged and thinking about these things. We’ve certainly got a long road ahead of us.

  • Jon Tufuga

    My issue with the petition is the hijacking of LDS voices by those who claim to be LDS church members and ‘friends’ of the LDS church. Who are these ‘friends’ who claim to speak for me? The leaders on the other hand have been sustained by my vote.

    This is how disingenuous the petition is: the petitioners themselves know will not canvas the church’s general membership, yet they proceed to make the claims they do nonetheless. They do know who is likely to visit that site and support such a petition, have you questioned that?

    I think you haven’t listed any good reasons to dismiss outright the church’s statement other than to say, you know it isn’t true.

    I think what the supporters of the petition miss is, the solemnity of what will happen on January 20th. For them, it is all an indictment of Trump the man. This transition of power while peaceful most of the time, saw a disruption that was very costly such as when Lincoln became President. However, since George Washington set the precedent, and since we’d resolved after events such as the revolution of 1800 that we will resort to the ballot box rather than to arms to settle our differences, this transition of power has become an important hallmark of the republic. Though I didn’t think anything would come of it, I was a little concerned that people I admire and read/follow were actually hoping the electoral college not perform its constitutional duty in confirming the results of the election (I am not a Trump supporter/voter by the way). I am very sympathetic to the criticisms of Trump’s character, but the people have spoken.

    The first black president elected by this country, who some of us voted for and some of us didn’t will peacefully transfer power to Trump, a man who some of us didn’t vote for and some of us did. It is the solemnity of this occassion that I support the choir observing with its special capabilities and talents.

    If we were to list the faults of the men who have been elected to this office, the MTC could never perform. I think sometimes it is ok to accept something like the church’s statement on why it is letting the choir participate as is, and not create a controversy that quite frankly doesn’t exist, not unless you or someone can prove the petition is a genuine LDS grassroots effort.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Hi, Jon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Hopefully I can help you understand a bit better where I’m coming from. First, nobody is presuming to speak for you. What they’re doing is speaking for themselves and for their own personal understanding of what the acceptance of this invitation signals, but intensively to Church members and extensively to the world. It would be a lie to insist the Church has no concern for how it appears to the world, so I don’t think it a productive approach to blithely wave away the opinions of anyone and everyone not in Church leadership. Whether or not the petition represents the entire membership is really immaterial, as the point is to say, “Our position is the majority one,” so much as to show how it is affecting people both inside and outside the Church.

      Next, I don’t believe the Church has any obligations to any national events, solemn or not. In fact, a lot of people don’t think we should be participating in these inaugurations precisely because it signals the Church’s cultural embeddedness in contemporary America. We are a worldwide Church that purports to answer to a much higher power. Many don’t think participating in American politics and not in foreign politics is consonant with our claims to transcend culture and politics.

      Next, solemn or not, I consider the wellbeing of our communities’ victims of sexual assault to far outweigh any patriotic or political duties. To say participation in any such event is worth further dehumanizing and marginalizing those daughters (as well as sons!) of God is a gross violation of my personal values and I hope those of any who take upon them the name of Christ.

      Next, perhaps you should look up the Constitutional duties of electoral voters. The Constitution doesn’t bind them to the outcomes of the popular votes in their states, nor does it require the all-or-nothing allocation of electoral votes. In the Constitutional framing of the Electoral College, the electors were supposed to be better educated and experienced citizens who would vote their consciences. The were to be a fail-safe against an uneducated electorate or one under the influence of a demagogue or foreign power. Trump is precisely the kind of president the Electoral College was empowered to stop. It was states who later enacted their own legislation to bind electors to the outcomes of their popular votes, and it so infuriated Hamilton and Madison that they actually drafted a constitutional amendment to put a stop to it. Unfortunately, it didn’t get anywhere. As an addendum to this rant, the Electoral College is an abysmal relic of a time and a circumstance that no longer exists, and all it does for our country today is privilege white voters in a small number of battleground states. It needs to be abolished.

      This isn’t about faults, for me, this is about fitness. Trump disgraces the presidency with every moment he is in it, not because he has too many faults, but because he has certain faults that are absolutely and unequivocally disqualifying. No unrepentant sexual predator ought to ever occupy the White House. He ought to be occupying a prison and we ought not to be normalizing a remarkably harmful message that is being sent to those who already struggle within our communities for value.

    • Howard Pepper

      I agree fully with Daniel’s explanation and position re. the Electoral College. It is a misconception held, unfortunately by many, that its purpose is to just formalize the tally of electoral votes garnered from winning state contests. Not the original intent. I’m always bothered when “strict constructionists” re. the constitution don’t apply the same standard in this area, and respect the wisdom of Hamilton and Madison. Btw, the state-by-state covenant “movement” has already gone pretty far and getting it over the 270 mark could relatively easily happen, to effectively nullify the electoral college vote system. It’s much more viable than a constitutional amendment and I’m all for getting it completed. If you haven’t looked into, I recommend you do so… and it’s not an entirely partisan effort, by any means.

  • shsoper

    Fascinating article. Thanks for sharing! I have a couple lingering questions for clarity’s sake–from the perspective of the CREDs model, the MTC refusing to perform at Trump’s inauguration would be a way of saying: “you have behaviors and beliefs that are not welcome in our group.” Am I understanding that correctly? Then, other groups that prioritize democracy over other values might subsequently reject Mormons and/or the MTC for taking that stance. As is, the MTCs acceptance to perform can appear like an acceptance of Trump’s behaviors but also gain credibility in more patriotic circles. Seems like a tough choice to me. I appreciate your challenge to figure out if I’m rationalizing anything. I have two thoughts and I’m wondering if they are rationalizations: 1. Yes, rejecting Trump symbolizes a rejection of his values, but would that rejection transform the way our actual communities function or would it make everybody feel like they did a good deed but then we all just go home and nothing changes? I just don’t know. Not sure how to gather evidence to challenge my opinions. 2. It is possible that we can do more good by being proactive on a small scale than by doing a nationally recognized thing. Again, need actual data to challenge this belief.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Sorry I didn’t get to your comment more quickly. No, I don’t think it would equate to saying “you’re not welcome,” because I don’t think the invitation reflects any kind of attempt at in-group membership. Refusing the invitation would be a credibility-enhancing display because it would say, “Our belief in values X, Y, and Z take priority over the socio-cultural capital gained by performing at a presidential inauguration.”

      I don’t think refusing the invitation would fundamentally change the way the community functions, but it would help a lot of individuals within the community to feel more integrated and valued, and I think it would improve our standing within the wider American and global communities.

      Yes, I absolutely think we need to be more proactive on a small scale. Some research was conducted several years ago by the Church that showed that public perception of the Church was actually lower for people who knew only one member of the Church than for those who knew two or more. One interpretation of this data is that Latter-day Saints aren’t living up to their ostensible standards when there aren’t other Latter-day Saints around.

  • Christian Apologist

    It is interesting how MOTAB sings Traditional Christian music most often yet the Mormon leaders teach it’s apostate.

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