Religion, Feminism, and Freedom of Conscience
Edited by George D. Smith

Chapter 6.
A Humanist View of Religious Universities
Vern L. Bullough

[p.63]Both Mormonism and Secular Humanism espouse the value of intelligent thinking, but I am not so sure we define things in the same way. For example, Mormonism has an ambiguous statement, often quoted, that the “Glory of God is Intelligence.” I have never been certain what that meant, and particularly whether the term applies only to God or whether it should also apply to humans—that is, that the greatest thing that humans have is intelligence. Humanists would argue the latter, that it is the ability of humans to conceive abstract ideas and to solve problems which separates humans from the higher animals.

Humanists base their belief system on a rational process of arriving at objective truth, namely the scientific method of testing and verifying the empirical world. We do not hold that science gives us final answers, only a method of arriving at a human response to some of life’s basic questions. In fact, we emphasize that we do not have an unequivocal perception of ultimate reality; we are not so much afraid of making erroneous assumptions as of perpetuating them. We believe all conjectures should be subjected to the severest imaginable empirical tests, in the hope they will reveal their fallacies. Refutation, however, should be well considered. We hold that a conjecture deserves to be retained at least until contradicted by a successfully tested new hypothesis. Perhaps this is ultimately the key to the concept of academic freedom. Only by continually questioning and challenging perceived truths can we verify or modify them.

[p.64]Mormons, on the other hand, hold that revealed truth is the highest form of truth, and since God’s knowledge, the source of revelation, is greater than human perception, revealed truth supersedes anything arrived at by more primitive rational tests. At base, this concept is inimical to academic freedom. Why question or challenge ideas when the truth is known?

Mormons, however, have an out. Revelation for them is an ongoing process which to me implies that ideas and concepts change. Such change can be explained as a better or more complete or fuller understanding of God’s will, but, however it is explained, it seems to imply that truth, or at least what is accepted as truth, is relative, if only because humans remain unable to comprehend all that God knows. Mormonism then comes at the point where, in secular terms, ideas and concepts change, but in religious terms, God’s will on new problems is not yet known. The latter is justification for academic freedom, since it can be argued that by questioning and challenging traditional knowledge, we are preparing ourselves to receive a more comprehensive revelation of God’s truth. But at this point in time Mormon church authorities often seem too fearful of change to tolerate such discussion.

This is not a problem unique to Mormonism. This is what happened to Marxism under Stalin where truth was what the central committee said it was. The Soviet academic either had to accept what Stalin said or suffer ostracism and punishment.

This to me only emphasizes the importance of academic freedom for both religious and non-religious alike. The ability to challenge traditional concepts, even if the challenge threatens what has passed for revealed truth, has been the key to human progress. Let me put it another way, from the perspective of a knowledgeable outsider. Mormons, like every other organized group, privately hold a variety of opinions among themselves on most issues of the day. Some are liberal, some are conservative, others are radical, and still others are reactionary, although most remain Mormons in good standing. When I was growing up in Salt Lake City, I was most fascinated by talks given by Waldemar Reed, a philosophy professor who was a member of the LDS church. In discussions with him, individuals such as myself wondered how he could remain a member of the LDS church when he held many of the views he did. He argued that he [p.65]had never yet met a group of people with whom he could agree on everything, that he did not always agree with the LDS church, but overall he felt there was more good than bad. He also held it was his duty to point out failings and contradictions because while at heart Mormonism might be based on revealed truth, most of the time it acted just as any other institution, trying to adjust to the problems of the contemporary world. However, he did not teach at Brigham Young University.

I am sure he represented the view of many so-called liberal Mormons. At that time, back in the early 1940s, I was concerned with racial problems and wondered how he could remain a Mormon when on such earth-shaking issues as race, the Mormon church was clearly wrong, reflecting the biases of the nineteenth century and their own problems in Missouri. He agreed the Mormons were wrong and some day would change. He said he could argue his own view more forcefully from within the LDS community than outside it. But his association with what I regarded as a major evil was a view that I could not accept. Ultimately, however, the Waldemar Reeds prevailed and the Mormon church did change.

Did God change his mind on this or on other issues that Mormons once held dear? I am sure that not all changes depend on revelation, but instead are simply necessitated by a growing and expanding organization. When I was growing up in Utah, many people refused to go to movies on Sunday since such a practice had been denounced by church authorities as were many other forms of recreation which took place on Sunday. Now such practices arouse little comment.

As a high school student in Utah I became increasingly aware of the contradictions between church pronouncements and what people did, and as I entered the University of Utah I was not surprised to find out that ideas expressed by professors were often in conflict with those expressed in official church pronouncements. Though some professors were insistent about their rights to express their own views, regarding it as a necessary aspect of academic freedom, most were far more cautious and not interested in making waves. If they could prevent a conflict and keep their integrity, they tried to do so. I was fascinated by the way in which many, both Mormons and [p.66]non-Mormons, dealt with the overwhelming presence of the church in Utah.

One of the best examples occurred when I attempted to take a course in evolutionary biology. Though the church itself is based on a concept of evolution—humans evolving to become gods—there was official concern that organic evolution denied the special creation of humans. Although the catalogue listed a course entitled “Evolution,” and such a class had briefly existed, it was no longer offered on a regular basis. It was, however, available through self-study. Thus the university kept its independence, the students who wanted to learn more about evolution could do so, but open detailed classroom discussion was avoided by having the self-study option. I am certain that if a professor had wanted to make an issue of this timid approach, the course would again have been regularly taught, as it later was. No faculty members at the university wanted to force such a confrontation at that time.

Traditionally there has been a belief among religious conservatives that religious ideas do not change. In the minds of Christian fundamentalists, the words of Jesus mean the same now as they did nearly two millennia ago. Mormons for their part admit to change, which gives them an advantage over Biblical literalists; because the issues of modern America are not those of ancient Palestine. They believe in the Bible insofar as it is translated correctly, a position which leaves plenty of room for maneuver on issues of biblical meaning and sources. Joseph Smith himself attempted to rewrite the Bible, correcting its errors in what is sometimes called the Inspired Version. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, embraced by Joseph Smith’s family who refused to follow Brigham Young west, retained the copyright to this biblical revision. Other Mormon scriptures have been revised, such as the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. This gives Mormons an advantage over biblical literalists, because the issues of modern America are not those of ancient Palestine. Usually, however, it is not differences in material culture on which religions are conservative, but the world of ideas. Still, religions gradually change, some at a faster pace than others.

Change, however, poses problems since if religions conform too much to the secular world, their members see little need to belong, [p.67]able to satisfy the needs previously filled by churches with other groups. This appears most evident in the decline in mainstream Protestantism which probably has been the most accommodating to modern issues. It also appears among humanists, most of whom do not belong to organized humanist groups. No wonder many denominations have fought against change; and, in the case of fundamentalists, gone to great lengths to insist on biblical literalness. Some of these groups who insist on a narrow, rigid definition of orthodoxy seem to be growing, although they are selective of the scriptures they use and lack any historical sense of early Christianity. Growth, however, is usually short-lived for those who are so narrowly rigid, and even the narrowest find it necessary to bend with the times.

For example, the old order Amish refuse to use buttons on their clothes because they are not mentioned in the Bible, but then neither are paper, ink, buggies, combines, tractors, and other things. Somehow buttons became the symbol while buggies did not. The Amish are not alone in their selection of which biblical statements are fundamental to their conduct.

Insistence on biblical literalness has led Southern Baptists to purge their seminaries of so-called liberals and some Lutheran synods have followed a similar path. Similar attempts to reject modern secularism have occurred in Catholicism under Pope John Paul II. Though they may rely on purges of faculty and bishops to keep clergy orthodox, or at least quiescent, they do not keep modem secularist ideas from creeping in among the laity. Mormons, however, have a particular problem which differs from Catholics, Baptists, or Lutherans in that there is no separation between clergy and lay because in Mormonism all males age twelve and up hold priesthood. This difference has particular meaning for BYU.

Traditionally, universities developed as training grounds for clergy. In the Middle Ages every student in the university was by definition a cleric. Secular universities were for the most part a development of the nineteenth century, although even before that time the nature of education had begun to change. In the United States, though private colleges had been organized by religious denominations to educate clergy (Cornell was a major exception), non-clerical students were soon admitted. Harvard was established to [68] train clergy, and when it came to be regarded as too liberal, a group of dissenters founded Yale.

There was really no academic freedom in these early institutions, although college professors since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas had been challenging traditional ideas. Academic freedom is a twentieth-century development. For a brief period the writings of Aquinas were labeled as heretical. Martin Luther was a theological professor, and when he broke with Catholicism, so did his university. As churches found it more difficult to control professors, particularly as colleges became something more than a training ground for clergy, they turned to special seminaries in which orthodoxy was emphasized and required. This was a major factor in the development of academic freedom, if only because the battleground to maintain orthodoxy shifted from the university to the seminary. Some seminaries even seceded from universities which had grown too secular.

Even seminaries, however, did not prove immune to the contagion of new ideas. Faculty felt it was important to educate students in the thinking of the non-religious world. To do so they turned to what came to be called Higher Criticism. This liberal religious scholarship troubled many denominations, who either tried to enforce orthodoxy in their seminaries or refused to ordain graduates who did not accept what they regarded as orthodox beliefs. Religious scholarship, however, was not usually preached in sermons as professionals sought to avoid antagonism with their congregations or church hierarchies. Still, standards of belief changed.

The more rigidly orthodox have renewed their attempts to control what is taught in their seminaries, trying to close their doors to modernism. The result has been a series of heresy trials, particularly in Missouri Synod Lutheran and Southern Baptist seminaries. Most of these are not accredited by regular college standards and rely on denominational acceptance. Some churches have established colleges where the whole faculty must adhere to narrow guidelines of orthodoxy, but they do so only by refusing tax money, something that only the zealous are willing to do. Therefore, instead of growing, the number of religiously controlled colleges has declined. Even Catholic Colleges reorganized themselves with lay boards of trustees and became officially non-sectarian in order to get public funds even though they continued to bear such names as Loyola or St. Mary’s. [p.69] This secularization of American colleges has meant that questions of orthodoxy have focused increasingly on religious professionals, rather than on members of the congregation. As a result, the concept of academic freedom has spread beyond secular institutions and high status private schools to vast areas of academia recently freed from dogmatic control. Seminaries, however, pose special problems since large numbers are still controlled by religious bodies.

All of this is by way of background to the growing problems faced by Brigham Young University. The fact that Mormonism lacks a professional clergy only accentuates the problem. Prophets and apostles are called from the laity. These general authorities attribute gospel interpretation to inspiration from God; few are experts in biblical studies or theology. Because the Mormon church emphasizes longevity as the prerequisite for becoming a new prophet, it also means that leaders are not up to date on current issues of scholarship or scientific findings. All the leaders of the Mormon church from Joseph Smith to the current prophet, Ezra Taft Benson, were born in the nineteenth century, and though many attended colleges or universities, such institutions were far more parochial than they now are. As administrators, few church leaders have time to dig into major questions of theology. Instead, what they do is interpret events through their own prisms which according to Mormonism are guided by inspiration and occasionally revelation, but to outsiders they seem to reflect the attitudes of the generations when the Mormon leaders were coming of age. Neither old age nor senility has been addressed as a problem.

Moreover, since all devout adult male members hold priesthood, any deviant member who becomes prominent can pose a threat similar to that of a deviant priest or minister in other churches. In fact, women, who only hold the priesthood through their husbands, pose the greatest threat because they challenge the very basis of control.

Often in the past the Mormon church was slow to excommunicate ordinary members who did not threaten the church directly. From my time in Utah I knew individuals who begged the church to excommunicate them, who joined other churches to emphasize their break with Mormonism, and even slammed the door in the faces of home teachers and in one case met them with a shotgun; [p.70] but most of these people were kept on church rolls regardless of their personal preference. Increasingly, however, this is not the case; in recent decades church leaders have not only been wiring to let individuals remove themselves from membership but have become more aggressive in threatening excommunication. They have been particularly concerned about orthodoxy in their institutions, of which BYU is the most influential. BYU and other Mormon colleges are unique in that they are both seminaries and universities. In order to preserve its independence, BYU has refused to accept federal funds and any policy requirements that go with them. Faculty are almost always Mormons in good standing who pay tithing and not only attend religious services regularly but are active participants in them.

Yet at the same time BYU aspires to become a leader in higher education, and because many Mormons want to live in Utah, it has managed to attract some particularly distinguished scholars. BYU is also a source of conflict, because religious orthodoxy and intellectual  freedom have not mixed well in recent times.

One enormous problem is that it is not always clear to Mormons what orthodoxy is, and defining orthodoxy becomes a matter of politics. People get into influential positions and define orthodoxy as what they say it is. Religions have their Stalins, and when a dogmatist achieves a powerful position, academic freedom is in peril. Though none of those in the LDS church hierarchy has yet to entertain Stalinist fantasies, they speak as “general authorities” on subjects they know little about, claiming a special relationship with God as authority. Sometimes the Council of the Twelve Apostles quietly leashes some of its colleagues, but this is rare. Who but a general authority can say when a colleague has started to read his own prejudices into doctrine? This is one of the purposes that academic freedom is supposed to serve, following the principles in John Smart Mill’s classic essay “On Liberty” of putting accepted truth to the challenges of criticism.

Excommunication, the ultimate threat to the believer, which was, until recently, used primarily against reactionary members, is now being used to control BYU faculty. Mormon church officials, like many of their Muslim counterparts, have awakened to the dangers of heresy and in the latest wave of excommunications have exiled both [p.71]liberal critics and arch conservatives. The result has been a growth of what can only be called a siege mentality among the Mormon hierarchy. Use of excommunication to control dissent is like an alcoholic taking the first drink. Once an institution starts a purge when can it stop? Dissent is regarded as dangerous, and open disagreement treacherous. Academic freedom itself becomes the threat, criticism the enemy. I suspect that few people have the courage to resist, and while dissenters might be urged on, few of BYU faculty will join them. From my perspective, academic freedom and BYU now seem like an oxymoron.

As a humanist, I can only sympathize with my besieged colleagues. I do not, however, assert that humanists are free from problems. In part, we have avoided it because we do not control any institution of higher education and our national bodies are competitive with each other. Sometimes I almost wish we could excommunicate some who call themselves humanists. This only emphasizes why academic freedom is so important, to protect us from ourselves.

In some parts of the world, where humanism is institutionalized, the same kind of issues present themselves. In the Netherlands, for example, where the government gives money to religious groups for social services and education, humanists have established college-level schools to train professionals as social workers, counselors, etc. Since religiously-oriented professionals are given course work in religion, humanists similarly have to get training in humanism. Committed to academic freedom, the founders of the University of Humanism hired experts in various fields of philosophy to teach classes, and it turns out that most are fashionably into deconstructionism, the denial of the value of the scientific method, and an emphasis on aesthetics. Some even seem to believe in God. In sum, perhaps we secular humanists avoid the problems of academic freedom faced by Mormon academics at BYU by not having our own institutions in the United States.

My heart goes out to my BYU friends and I know from firsthand experience some of their feelings and emotions, since I myself was once an academic freedom “case” and for a time was threatened with loss of employment. Though I won my case, I resigned anyway, and went on to better things. At the time it was going on, it was hell. [p.72]Whether BYU will have academic freedom in the long run is something only the faculty can determine. The Mormon church also has to decide whether it wants a first-class academic institution or a third-rate college more concerned with orthodoxy than intellectual frontiers. Outsiders can only criticize and empathize. The decision ultimately is a Mormon one. As of this writing, academic freedom and BYU seem to form an oxymoron.

Vern L. Bullough is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at State University of New York at Buffalo.