The Mormon Church Gathers Mountains of Data. What Does That Mean for Revelation?

It may sound like a small thing, but my view of the world shifted the day I received a survey as a Mormon missionary.

Church leaders in Salt Lake City had sent our mission a stack of surveys and asked us to each fill one out. They intended to use the insights to improve the Church's missionary program.

As I filled out the survey, which was quite extensive, it struck me that this method of gathering insight was dramatically different than the method that Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, had used in the early 1800s.

When Smith wanted to improve the Church, he prayed and then spoke as though he were God. That’s why the phrase “thus saith the Lord” appears 62 times in Smith’s canonized revelations, collected in the Doctrine and Covenants. Smith didn’t survey his followers to know what to do. He claimed to receive revelation directly from an all-knowing being.

By contrast, Church leaders today rarely if ever use the words “thus saith the Lord,” and they frequently rely on data gathering to make decisions.

And the data gathering isn’t limited to missionary work. A few years after I returned home from my mission, I was randomly selected to participate in six digital surveys that took around 20 minutes each to complete. These surveys asked for my views on topics like immigration, church history, and specific Mormon bloggers.

It seems that gathering data is common practice for the Mormon Church.

To a degree, this focus on data mirrors a theory from the writer Yuval Noah Harari. Harari claims that dataism is becoming a new worldwide religion and that humankind will come to trust in data just as we have trusted in the gods.

In his book Homo Deus he outlines four major shifts in human religion spanning the past 10,000+ years. I might sum up his view as follows:
  • Animism (starting 10,000+ years ago)
    • Everything has a spirit, even trees and animals. If you want something from a tree or animal, you must pray to it directly.
  • Theism (starting roughly 7,000 years ago) 
    • There are gods who rule above. If you want something, you must pray to your god to provide it for you.
  • Humanism (starting in earnest roughly 300 years ago) 
    • Humans are the epitome of creation. If you want something, you have to get it yourself.
  • Dataism (currently emerging) 
    • Algorithms rule the world. If you want something, you can refer to algorithms that will suggest the best way to get it.
We see dataism emerging today almost everywhere we look. For instance, we trust Google Maps to guide us to our destination when we’re driving because we know that their algorithm has been right hundreds of times before. We also rely on Google’s algorithms to give us the information we search for. In addition, we get suggestions from Facebook and Amazon about what we might like, and we occasionally look at those suggestions. Algorithms play a role in a range of fields, from self-driving cars to medicine to computer science.

Harari’s point isn’t that dataism will be a perfect religion. Far from it. It will occasionally prove faulty, just as all religions have. But as algorithms improve, they will offer us access to superhuman intelligence. And as we trust these algorithms, we will feed them more data, which will in turn only make the suggestions better and better — resulting in increased trust (and, again, resulting in better algorithms).

Is it too bold to say that Mormonism is currently making the shift from theism to dataism? Perhaps. After all, members of the Church still say (often with evidence, in my opinion) that their intuition guides them when making callings or knowing which members of the ward need help.

However, it’s clear that the Mormon Church is increasingly interested in gathering data and less interested in explicitly speaking as as the voice of God. Perhaps we're looking at a hybrid of theism and dataism. And, for better and for worse, that is certainly a shift from the methods Joseph Smith used to lead the Church.


Jon Ogden is the author of When Mormons Doubt: A Way to Save Relationships and Seek a Quality Life, available via Amazon.