Sounding the Secularist Alarm at BYU

February 17, 2014 | 94 comments
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Ralph Hancock has a provocative article in the March edition of First Things in which he raises concerns about the specialization/secularization he sees occurring at Brigham Young University:

“For some decades, BYU had managed a compromise between the academic mainstream and its own aspiration to a distinctive mission. [While encouraging excellence in the scholarly communities in which we participate, leaders have also] urged the faculty to resist hyper-specialization, by which we seek merely to ‘imitate others or win their approval,’ and instead to assume the responsibility of ‘those educated and spiritual and wise [to] sort, sift, prioritize, integrate, and give some sense of wholeness… to great eternal truths.’ But the machinery of specialization was already in place, and it has only accelerated.

“While the mainstream academic suppression of all questions of transcendent purpose and of associated moral limits was taken as a given across the disciplines, and while most researchers and teachers deferred intellectually, in their specialized professional capacities, to the authority of a rationalist and reductionist framework of understanding, they were not for the most part concerned to draw the moral, political, and religious implications. The authority of a reductionist scientism and an ethic of limitless personal freedom grew steadily in the human sciences and humanities, but most BYU professors were happy to consider their scientific or scholarly work as ‘value-neutral’ and to compartmentalize their religious and moral beliefs in a ‘private’ domain supposedly exempt from the ordering paradigm of their discipline. Even the relatively few professors knowingly committed to the moral and political implications of the secular–progressive paradigm often felt no urgent need to convert less enlightened students.”

This trend toward specialization/secularization, he argues, has left professors and students at BYU less capable of countering “liberationist or reductionist arguments by critiquing fundamental ideas”:

“One student remarked to me: ‘I have noticed in my classes that it is almost taboo to defend a conservative position on issues that align with church doctrine. I feel like I am being bold by stating my opinion on issues that are supported by the doctrine. I wonder if other students feel similarly.’ Without engaging the ideas underlying the moral and political forces of secular progressivism, BYU can only cooperate by default with the dominant movement. To acquiesce to the authority of the secular academic establishment is effectively to endorse it and to bolster it, even if most do not intend this effect.”

The stakes, he argues, are crucial:

“The tragic result of BYU’s movement from its distinctive, countercultural mission is that many good young Latter-day Saints feel that they have to choose between being thoughtful, reasonable, and well-informed and being loyal to fundamental moral and religious principles. Happily, many faculty provide living counterexamples to this generalization, but few take up the task of providing an intellectual alternative. The secular culture intimidates some of the best of the rising generation by presenting them with this alternative: You can be counted among the smart people, or you can cling to your groundless and cruel prejudices. BYU shows little interest in articulating a third choice: an intellectual defense of openness to unfashionable truths.”

He predicts that a breaking point is on the horizon, concluding that “[t]o preserve what remains of BYU’s legacy and to build a truly distinctive and enduring university on this foundation of openness to Truth will require much of BYU’s faculty and administration in the very near future.”

As a philosophical matter, I think Hancock is right to point to the passivity of contemporary academics in the face of a technological culture in which a naive empiricism has fostered an increasingly specialized and reductive intellectual order. Assuming a “value neutral” method, many scholars today–particularly those bent on reducing all aspects of academic life to one form of quantitative research or another–reject out of hand as uninteresting and irrelevant most fundamental questions of purpose, meaning and ethics. This development is exacerbated by the growing specialization that continues to narrow the focus of professional researchers, further limiting these scholars’ areas of expertise. Moreover, by ignoring the limits of the kinds of claims that can be made on the basis of their methodological findings, many scholars have become increasingly oblivious to the actual need to ground their claims at all. To foster the broader range of discussion that BYU desires, I think it is key to keep these limits at the center of the conversation and to highlight the enormous significance that religious, moral and ethical understanding provide to the foundation of spiritual and intellectual life.

That said, I think the portrait that Hancock paints at times feels somewhat reductionist.  I’m often left wondering what exactly he means when he uses the terms “liberal,” “secular,” and “progressive,” and I believe there is a danger in asserting that the appropriate political and social response to the ungrounded aspects of contemporary academics is expressed in the confrontation of impoverished versions of today’s conservative and liberal ideologies. I think it actually behooves us to avoid holding the restored gospel hostage to these or any other transient ideological constructs.

Please keep comments respectful and on topic.

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94 Responses to Sounding the Secularist Alarm at BYU

  1. Dave Banack on February 17, 2014 at 11:05 am

    Thanks for the summary, Marc. I think Hancock is painting this as a dispute between himself, arguing for BYU’s distinctive mission, and everyone else, who thinks BYU ought to be just another secular university. That obviously misrepresents reality, as almost no one at BYU thinks it ought to be just another secular university — they just have different ideas about what BYU’s distinctive mission is than Hancock does. Until he is willing to acknowledge the fact that others care about BYU as much as he does, few will respond to his critique. He is building fences when he ought to be building bridges.

  2. Sam Brunson on February 17, 2014 at 3:07 pm

    It’s also worth noting that Hancock raises an empirical question: has BYU moved (a) away from non-specialization, and (b) toward hyperspecialization (and, possibly, (c) at a speed greater than the increased specialization in academia in general)? Sure, he feels like it has, but his anecdotal experience does not data make.

  3. JKC on February 17, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    “‘I have noticed in my classes that it is almost taboo to defend a conservative position on issues that align with church doctrine. I feel like I am being bold by stating my opinion on issues that are supported by the doctrine. I wonder if other students feel similarly.’”

    I wonder if this unnamed student is confusing his or her ill-considered political opinions with “issues that are supported by church doctrine.” It could be that he or she is getting pushback because his or her positions are not logically well-founded, not because they are “conservative position[s] on issues that align with church doctrine.”

    I don’t know. I suppose BYU may have changed dramatically since I graduated in 2006, but my experience was never that conservative (whatever that means–Hancock never explains it, as the OP points out) views were unfairly scrutinized. If anything, many of my profs. worked hard to make me question many of my own assumptions which I can only guess Hancock would describe as “liberal.” Of course, aside from religion classes, my experiences were mostly limited to the English department, the philosophy department, and the political science department, so they may not be representative of BYU as a whole. Still, I can hardly believe that these departments were or are a conservative enclave within in increasingly secular BYU.

  4. Steve Smith on February 17, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    Mark, you’re right. I don’t know what Hancock means by the terms ‘liberal,’ ‘secular,’ and ‘progressive.’ Those terms have a wide range of meanings. Furthermore I don’t see what is morally wrong or contradictory with being a liberal secular progressive and a Mormon at the same time. The LDS church doesn’t dictate its members’ political positions and philosophies.

    But I also agree with you and Hancock that there is no such thing as ‘value-neutral’ and that professors do need to try to ground their arguments in a values-based philosophy. My hope is that professors would ground their arguments in the values of secular humanism, which I think is the most morally superior philosophy that exists. But there is a lot of Mormonism that coincides with secular humanism and its diverse expressions.

  5. Clay Cook on February 17, 2014 at 7:04 pm

    Steve, I appreciate and agree with your comments on Secular Humanism you say that “lot of Mormonism coincides with SH could give me some links or references on this topic please. My Bishop is always making Secular Humanism out to be the philosophy of the devil and I would like to have some material to push back. Thanks
    I hope this is not to far off the topic.

  6. Howard on February 17, 2014 at 9:16 pm

    I like Bro. Hancock, he’s a bright, articulate guy with a very lofty vocabulary but he seems to live in an increasingly uncomfortable world of shrinking conservative bastions. There is nothing wrong with belief, that is what testimonies and the spirit are about but how have traditional belief based arguments scored against science? Increasingly poor I’d say, unless you consider foot-in-the-door-plausibility some kind of a faith based victory over probability! Yes purpose, meaning and ethics are very important and certainly deserve respectful consideration. But this country was divinely formed as a progressive movement elevating individual freedoms over the collective far exceeding what went before, I don’t believe we should tremble at the idea of it’s continuance. Ralph’s criticisms seem little more than Philosophism unless he has some way of describing his fears with quantified nuance in place of the blaring siren of alarm. What does he offer in it’s place, a liberal dose of traditional bias? So my little pun was offered to suggest that this is more about political philosophy than gospel, after all was Jesus a conservative?

  7. Rachel Whipple on February 17, 2014 at 10:48 pm

    Hancock wrote “In the larger Western academic culture, the truce between reason and faith has been broken.” I don’t know exactly what that truce was or what it could have looked like. I think it may be something along the lines of an idyllic but fictional past for which we feel a false nostalgia and use as a false comparison to condemn the realities of the present. I tend to agree with Hancock’s general criticism of over-specialization, but I don’t see a good way to mix in religion to most academic work. In many cases, it would be unprofessional, and seriously detrimental to a scholar or researcher’s credibility. BYU could include devotional output in its consideration of faculty merit, just as it does volunteer work and community service, but I don’t think that’s the kind of compromise Hancock is looking for.

  8. DavidH on February 17, 2014 at 10:52 pm

    Humanism is a religious philosophy as well as a secular one. Erasmus, a contemporary of Luther, and who did not break with the Church (although he agreed with most or all of Luther’s critiques, was a Christian humanist. As Wikipedia puts it, “Christian humanism emphasizes the humanity of Jesus, his social teachings and his propensity to synthesize human spirituality and materialism.” Pope Francis is a Christian humanist. Secular humanism can have similar emphasis on goodness and truth, but without positing a God or Christ. Of course, there are likely as many forms of secular humanism as there are of religious or Christian humanism.

  9. Gwen on February 17, 2014 at 10:54 pm

    This reminds me of words of the great philosopher Stephen Colbert, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

    BYU Alum ’09

  10. DavidH on February 17, 2014 at 10:57 pm

    Brigham Young told Karl Maeser not to teach the multiplication tables without the spirit of God. He did not tell him to discuss God or religion or testimony as integral to the multiplication tables. I majored in math at BYU 40 years ago. Even in the golden years of BYU’s past unthreatened by secularism, there was not once mentioned in any of the classes religious texts or gospel principles or God. Well other than the statement that praying before taking tests at BYU doesn’t help one get better grades, it just raises the grading curve.

  11. Ben Huff on February 17, 2014 at 11:41 pm

    This is a pretty dismissive set of comments in response to a carefully crafted essay. I hate to say it, but Dave and Sam, on the basis of your comments it doesn’t look to me like you have read the essay seriously. If we read just far enough to find some basis for rejecting it, and look no further, we are likely to miss the interesting part rather often.

    Dave (#1), your simplistic restatement quite misses the point. Ralph’s point is about the scholarship that BYU professors are doing, and the importance of scholarship for how well BYU is able to fulfill its mission. And he has presented substantial evidence that the prevailing view, backed by the evaluation and promotion process, is that the scholarly work of BYU faculty should be pretty much just like the scholarship at any other secular university. In his words, the message to the faculty is, “Your job . . . is to be good scholars and teachers as these functions are defined by the broader (secular) educational establishment by which we measure ourselves.” But perhaps you think that the kind of scholarship done at a university is not important to its mission?

    Sam (#2), yes, he does raise that point, but it is a secondary point that one should not expect extensive evidence for. Of course, I think it is pretty uncontroversial that academia as a whole has, in fact, been moving toward increasing specialization, and as a result, increasing irrelevance to the sorts of things most people care about (at least in the humanities and social sciences). Discussions of the evolution of higher education these days refer to this point as a commonplace. Do you think that BYU has somehow been a remote outlier, despite the fact that all its faculty are coming from degree programs in the larger academic world where hyperspecialization is normal and expected?

    His main point, however, as I read him, is that the BYU faculty, as a matter of general policy (written or not) are not encouraged to address “questions of transcendent purpose and of associated moral limits” from a Mormon perspective in their scholarship (p49), and as a result BYU is in practice “acquiesc[ing] to the authority of the secular academic establishment,” effectively “endors[ing]” and “bolster[ing] it, even if most do not intend this effect” (p51). This is a problem, of course, because the heart of Mormon faith is transcendent purpose and the associated moral norms, and secular norms in the prevailing culture (particularly in higher education) are very different and often in radical conflict.

    If BYU is not addressing Mormon views on transcendance and morality in its scholarship, then one of the main functions of a university is offline with respect to its mission. Furthermore, university teaching is supposed to be based on scholarship. Hence if scholarship on the Mormon worldview is not being done, there is not much of a basis for teaching that engages with it either. That puts the second major function of a university mostly offline with respect to BYU’s distinctive mission. Do you have something to say about that?

    The part about specialization is just an observation about one of the contributing reasons why transcendence and such are not being addressed.

  12. Ben Huff on February 18, 2014 at 12:08 am

    Rachel (#6), you have basically restated exactly the position Ralph is objecting to. By whose standards would it be “unprofessional, and seriously detrimental to a scholar or researcher’s credibility” to mix religion into academic work? Those would be the standards of the secular academy. Are you saying that those are the standards that should govern BYU scholarship?

    If you are going to suggest that Ralph is comparing today’s universities to an “idyllic but fictional past for which we feel a false nostalgia,” maybe you should take two minutes and look at the history of universities before you say that. Of course, today’s secular assumptions have become so comfortable to many of us that we feel no need to consider whether someone who disagrees with them might have some basis for disagreeing.

    If you look at the history of universities, you will find that the first universities (Oxford, Cambridge, University of Paris, Padua, etc.) were essentially church institutions, growing out of “Christian cathedral schools and monastic schools.” At such schools it was understood that we know certain things by revelation and should rely on the authority of revelation on these matters, even if they seem puzzling to reason. And most of the private universities we have all heard of in the States (Harvard, etc.) began in a very similar manner, as deeply religious institutions with the training of clergy as a major goal, if not the primary goal. So the idea that reason could be exercised in harmony with faith is not only not imaginary, it was the standard at most of our leading universities, for most of their history. The idea that bringing religion into scholarship is unprofessional is a rather recent arrival. If you accept this idea just because that is the way people think at most universities, lately, well, Ralph is saying that is not a very good reason. And it shows the kind of short historical memory that is all too typical of the graduates of contemporary universities.

  13. p on February 18, 2014 at 12:52 am

    Again to Adam Gopnik in recent New Yorker: “And here we arrive at what the noes [athiests, in Gopnik's world, "specialists" in ours], whatever their numbers, really have now, and that is a monopoly on legitimate forms of knowledge about the natural world. They have this monopoly for the same reason that computer manufacturers have an edge over crystal-ball makers: the advantages of having an actual explanation of things and processes are self-evident. What works wins.”

    Add to this the Brethren’s reluctance to de-couple “questions of transcendent purpose” from conservative talking points and it’s no wonder academics & their chargers are no longer engaged.

  14. Cynthia L. on February 18, 2014 at 1:26 am

    That obviously misrepresents reality, as almost no one at BYU thinks it ought to be just another secular university — they just have different ideas about what BYU’s distinctive mission is than Hancock does.

    Here, here, Dave.

    Many students I know talk very favorably about they love that BYU professors deeply engage with the morality of topics raised in the class (human trafficking, literature, …). I’ve heard of fascinating and wonderful discussions about medical ethics happening in the biology department.

    Hancock is wrong that it isn’t happening. It seems to me that he’s upset that he is the only one who still likes ice cream these days, but it’s only because he doesn’t acknowledge anything other than pistachio as ice cream, and everybody else is enjoying 31 other flavors. I think he has a couple shibboleths that “count” in his mind. Others interpret and express their values in other ways. I’d say simply, “His loss,” except that it’s too bad that he feels to disparage others over it.

  15. Steve Smith on February 18, 2014 at 3:04 am

    Clay, great question. I don’t really have any specific resources that I can refer you to, just a line of logic that I appeal to. This line of logic involves coming up with basic definitions of secularism, humanism, and Mormonism. My basic definition of secularism is a sociopolitical system in which individuals’ freedom from religion and freedom of religious assembly are protected to the extent that one individual or group does not use their freedoms to impinge on the freedoms of another group or individual. Secularism is a system in which laws are established based on appeals to logic and reasoning only instead of appeals to the idea that ‘god said so’ or ‘my traditional belief system dictated so.’ Laws may have a moral basis, but we can establish morality through logically consistent reasoning. The secular sociopolitical system would seem morally superior to a religion-based sociopolitical system, which would privilege people who agreed with an officially-recognized belief about god and discriminate against those who had a different concept of god. I very much believe that Mormonism owes much of its existence and fluorescence to secularism and that Mormons should praise secular principles for protecting them from the persecution of outsiders.

    My basic definition of humanism is a philosophy cum lifestyle that holds as its ideal the protection of human life and well-being to the utmost possible extent. It is a philosophy that focuses on maintaining an optimal balance between different competing forces that are trying to inflict harm upon humans. It focuses its efforts on protecting human life and well-being in the here and now and foreseeable future instead of the state of humans in the unforeseeable future (so it doesn’t concern itself about what happens in the afterlife before the here and now). It establishes morality based upon reason and emphasizes the primacy of science over dogma. When trying to determine what is true it holds to the values of 1) attempting to understand the world, 2) respecting evidence, 3) logical consistency in reasoning, 4) intellectual honesty, and 5) abiding by the principle of parsimony.

    Mormonism can coexist with secular humanism as long as Mormonism exists as more of a benign orthopraxy-centered tradition that doesn’t seek to coercively impose itself on individuals and prevent people from seeking to enhance human knowledge of what is true and just. I subscribe to a minimalist definition of Mormonism which I establish by asking a couple of questions. What do you have to do to be a Mormon? Have your name listed on the Church Office Building records. The LDS church identifies 15 million Mormons worldwide. While the majority of these Mormons do not regularly attend church or identify themselves as Mormon, the LDS church identifies them as such. What do you have to do to be a Mormon in good standing? Honestly answer the temple recommend questions in a way that satisfies a local leader. However, the temple recommend questions are fairly broad and you are free to privately define many terms (i.e. restoration, sustain, etc.) as you please. At any rate being a secular humanist does not preclude one from believing in God or practicing a religious tradition, as long as that tradition is not used to limit the well-being of other people and is not coercively imposed on others.

  16. sey on February 18, 2014 at 3:29 am

    Ben (#11): With respect to medieval universities, you’re missing some important details. Twelfth-century cathedral schools and thirteenth-century universities were frequent targets of monastic (and other) critics for such things as subjecting the faith to secular concerns and methods or for spending too much time on allegedly frivolous (or even, as they perceived, dangerous) secular texts (e.g. Aristotle or Cicero). As just one (very famous) example, see Bernard of Clairvaux’s criticisms of Peter Abelard. Even in the thirteenth century, as Peter Lombard’s textbook on theology – the Sentences – became the mainstay of theological pedagogy (and remained so until well into the sixteenth century) people were criticizing university theologians for spending too much of their time on the Sentences and not enough on the Bible. In retrospect, scholarship at the early universities certainly does seem to be much more oriented towards matters of faith than, say, the work at secular universities today. But they had their own critics making some very similar claims (including from others within the universities, not unlike the vantage point from where Hancock is speaking). Plus ça change…

  17. Ben. P on February 18, 2014 at 3:36 am

    After reading the essay carefully, I was absolutely dumbfounded how Hancock and I have experienced two completely different worlds at BYU. (Not to mention two completely different readings of Craig Harline’s fantastic BYUSQ article, the only verifiable evidence the essay offers.) Most of my teachers, in class and mentoring sugar ions, provided the intellectual modeling necessary for me to navigate the treacherous waters of faith and intellect, and it left more proudly and committedly Mormon than I had entered. The broad, general, and sweeping condemnations without real evidence did not, to me, represent what is really going on. I guess that is what happens when one’s only prism through which they view the teaching and practice of mormon morality is a single issue (outspoken resistance to SSM), and anything else falls short of that standard.

    As mentioned above, it is not that the majority of BYU faculty don’t sufficiently infuse their classes with Mormon-ness, but that they don’t do so with. Hancock’s Mormon-ness with its concomitant signals and whistles.

  18. Ben. P on February 18, 2014 at 3:40 am

    I should add that I sympathize with the essay’s fear of over-specialization, but I think the root of that problem is not some generic, all-encompassing bogeyman of secularization, but the overall adoption of the over-capitalized, business-focused, and hyper-professionalized model creeping across all of academia.

  19. JKC on February 18, 2014 at 6:58 am

    Uncle Clay, I had a good friend in Minneapolis who called himself a secular humanist who basically meant that as a synonym for agnostic/atheist. Maybe your bishop is responding to something like that. Of course, even my friend, when pushed, admitted that humanism, whether you use the secular adjective or not, is not inherently incompatible with religion.

    I think maybe the key distinction is that for me, it would be wrong to say that you can never accept spiritual experiences as proof of spiritual truth for your own self, but at the same time, I think it is appropriate to say that in the public sphere, it would be wrong to base public policy only on spiritual truth with no naturalistic proof, because our constitutional system doesn’t allow us to legislate based only on religious or moral disapproval, where that disapproval is not a consensus. So while I reject secular humanism in my private life, I nevertheless find it useful as a framework for public disclose. Not to mention that I think it is healthy for any religious person to question our assumptions from time to time, and taking a secular humanist view from time to time to explore naturalistic explanations for our spiritual experiences may be productive.

  20. James Olsen on February 18, 2014 at 7:59 am

    I share both Hancock & Ben’s concerns about the nature of BYU and to what extent it’s taking concrete steps to produce serious engagement with or development of specifically Mormon (or more broadly religious) points of intellectual understanding and engagement. It’s the spiritual/transcendence analog of BYU taking a backseat when it comes to Mormon Studies. Three points:

    1. I think there’s an important sense in which BYU is merely following the trend of the Church, which has done nothing positive that I’m aware of to develop serious theology, and lots of folks have pointed out ways in which it has actually inhibited its development. I’m not sure how BYU can shift to support more transcendence/morality based forms of intellectual engagement amongst its faculty without encouraging some kind of mature theological research.

    2. I think Hancock makes this out to be more of a choice than it really was. Our PhDs are trained in secular universities to perform a secular job, and as Hancock himself notes, it’s not clear how BYU can be taken seriously as an institution of higher education if its faculty don’t actually perform their job as defined by the greater community. This seems to be part of Hancock’s concern – if we’re not actively pursuing something different the natural default is going to be a lack of anything distinctive about BYU! – but he could make this rather than liability a greater focus.

    3. Unfortunately Hancock opens himself up to exactly the kind of dismissal he’s getting. It would be nice if he weren’t so blatantly antagonistic or sloppy when defining and filtering everyone into his binary categories. It would be especially nice if his writing didn’t make implicit (or perhaps explicit) his own bias that liberal/progressive = secular = moral relativist, which is not only obviously false but also completely mischaracterizes some of the most interesting (and dominant) stuff going on in secular studies and moral philosophy. I think it would be both unfortunate and utterly unsurprising if the faculty at BYU whom he might seek to convince simply ignore him for this reason.

    Part of the problem is that Hancock’s arguments always seem to fly at very high altitudes. This leaves his opponents free to not feel compelled to do anything more than shrug their shoulders. He ought to either 1) describe in detail and with readily accessible (non-anecdotal) evidence something that everyone can agree on or at least has to acknowledge (note: his interpretation of the BYUSQ article is the very opposite of this); or 2) give us concrete proposals that can be debated. I don’t think we need the sort of abstract, background conceptual footwork that might be the justification for his article (but maybe that’s because I’m naively convinced that most scholars at BYU are already interested in seeing high caliber Mormon thought taking place). If concrete change is your goal, then state your theoretical concerns more concisely (and less polemically) and offer specific policies/organizational changes.

  21. Aaron on February 18, 2014 at 8:31 am

    This is one of the things I found difficult to deal with at BYU — not this issue specifically, but the issue of what BYU should be and what it should be doing. Frankly, as someone who attended a state school prior to BYU, I felt far less tension because of the absence of such questions and I felt far stronger as a member of the church knowing that I and not the school I was attending was responsible for my spiritual growth and development. I suspect we will be having similar discussions about BYU for as long as the school exists.

  22. rb on February 18, 2014 at 8:44 am

    Honest question here: is this just an internicene battle between BYU adherents or is there some larger impact to Mormondom? My wife and I are ACC grads and my kids attend PAC12 and Patriot League schools. We are all active members but not really interested in the intramural BYU debates-though they seem to draw a lot of attention far beyond BYU. Is there something larger than competing visions for the mission of BYU at issue? I am not seeing one, but am admittedly not anywhere close to vested in any BYU dispute or any particular vision of the school or it’s mission/drift/creep in any particular.

  23. Mark B. on February 18, 2014 at 9:05 am

    “questions of transcendent purpose and of associated moral limits”

    I’m just trying to figure out how to work those things into topics like “Characterization of Carbon Dioxide Mobile Phase Density Profiles in Packed Capillary Columns by Raman Microscopy” or “New Optical Cell Design for Laser Flash Photolysis Studies in Supercritical Fluids.”

  24. Rachel Whipple on February 18, 2014 at 9:07 am

    Ben, I’m speaking as someone married to an evolutionary development biologist who teaches at BYU. His papers on the genetic development of teosinte, maize, and arabidopsis have very little to do with gospel principles, and to insert them would guarantee that he’d not get published in any of the top tier journals in his field. It would hurt him in competition for NSF grants and other funding. In his classes on plant diversity and field botany he is able to bring in gospel insight as it relates to the subject matter. But Hancock’s article, while dismissive of all “secular” researchers, doesn’t seem to address the fact that there are widely different fields of study, some of which, outside of the humanities and social sciences, are less amenable to having religion overtly discussed within their academic publications.

  25. European Saint on February 18, 2014 at 9:14 am

    To rb (21): Because the First Things article costs $1.99 (or a subscription) to access, I imagine you (and some–but not all–other commenters) have not yet read the article. This is understandable, as we have all grown accustomed to free access to editorials and the like. I have read Hancock’s piece several times, and I am convinced that FT published it precisely because its editors and staff–who, by the way, are far removed from Provo, BYU, and the LDS Church–decided the theme is not one limited to “intramural BYU debates.” One underlying focus here is that the very concept of what constitutes “rational” is increasingly understood to preclude any “religious” or “spiritual” input from the very outset. Hence the outcry, for example, that Gene Schaerr saw “defending the constitutionality of traditional marriage” as “a religious and family duty.” (How dare he?) As Mark Steyn recently stated, “Much of the progressive agenda […] involves not winning the argument but ruling any debate out of bounds.” You may not appreciate Steyn’s use of the word “progressive” here, but hopefully you will see that the “ruling any debate out of bounds” bit is happening before our very eyes, again and again, with folks claiming that arguments informed by religious sentiment have no place in “rational” debate. As Hancock posits in a forthcoming Meridian Magazine article, “The most rigorous reasoning sees beyond simplistic “rationalism” to the sources of goodness that reason cannot itself fabricate.” This, I think, is at the heart of Hancock’s concerns as outlined in the FT piece. (And, lest you think Hancock is too hard on the secularists, he also states: “We rightly take revealed truth as the anchor of our reasoning, but then we sometimes wrongly appeal to revelation or scripture or prophecy alone as an excuse to neglect the task of reasoning together about what is good.”)

  26. Ben P on February 18, 2014 at 9:18 am

    Rachel: absolutely. My courses were primarily in the humanities, which has more wiggle-room in addressing gospel-related principles, which is why I felt that my professors, when appropriate, intermingled a Mormon perspective. Granted, this was often well demarketed within the lecture or discussion so we knew we were breaking the narrative of mainstream academic discourse (I refuse to use “secular” in this context because, especially in this discourse, it is both flattenned to mean nothing as well as expanded to indict everything), but it was present enough that made me feel my BYU experience was, uniquely, BYU. But such divergences could only be made most valid, exceptional, and significant when in the context of all other pedagogical contours fitting within the boundaries of the academic university discipline.

    That is to say, Amen.

  27. European Saint on February 18, 2014 at 9:19 am

    To Mark B. (22) and Rachel Whipple (23): Perhaps you overlooked this passage in the FT article: “Many teach in pre-professional, technical, and natural-scientific fields that can for the most part be safely insulated from the questions of ultimate purpose that condition our understanding of the meaning of education. It is in the social sciences and humanities that the tension manifests itself between a specialized and reductionist view and a more holistic understanding of human existence, social, moral, and political.”

  28. Howard on February 18, 2014 at 9:23 am

    Where does the glory of God is intelligence and study it out in your mind and ask if it is so fit into all this? Why should myths be required to be woven into science?

  29. Publius on February 18, 2014 at 9:44 am

    “mentoring sugar ions”? The things they’re doing at BYU these days!

  30. rameumptom on February 18, 2014 at 10:34 am

    I think it could all be remedied by the Church getting out of the university business. We spend tons of tithing money so a small percentage of our young people can attend school together, robbing Institutes of Religion and colleges elsewhere of quality young people that could be setting a spiritual example in the mission field, instead. The tithes could easily be used elsewhere.

    I didn’t have Church members subsidizing my education, and I don’t think we should do it for a small cadre as we do now. Better to use our tithes elsewhere than to subsidize wealthy Mormon kids’ tuition.

    In fact, we could use a portion of that tithing money to set up Mormon chairs at other universities, such as the one at Claremont. I think that would be a more useful use of tithes.

    I went to a secular university. It gave me the chance to learn the humanist way of thinking, and at the same time, represent my faith before others. I didn’t require the white cathedral walls of BYU to influence my religion and faith. I think my testimony grew more by exercising my own faith in the wild than I ever could by sitting in a class with 50 other Mormons.

    In this way we remove the problem of whether a church school is too religious or too secular. We do not have political fights over how to do scholarship in a religious school (as we’ve seen with the Maxwell Institute’s fight – regardless of which side of the aisle you are on, it is still an ugly fight). We also do not risk embarrassing moments, such as BYU religion professor Randy Bott’s interview regarding the priesthood ban.

    The real solution is to realize that Utah is no longer isolated from the rest of America, and therefore the Mormons do not need to provide isolated saints with a college education. We’ve closed down schools in Mexico, Bolivia and other countries, as secular alternatives have come into play. Why not close down LDS schools in Utah and Idaho? Tradition is the only thing that keeps them open.

    And as BYU becomes more secular (and it will, unless the First Presidency steps in), it will only be distinguished from other schools by the dress and moral codes.

  31. Ben Huff on February 18, 2014 at 1:06 pm

    Well, rameumptom (#30), the BYU honor code, along with the housing and ecclesiastical endorsement policies, creates a really special environment for student life. I’m glad you were able to build your testimony through your education elsewhere, but the statistics show the BYU environment has a huge impact on the spiritual health of those who go there. It is really remarkable how BYU has avoided the morally degrading student culture of most other universities. That is well worth maintaining even if the intellectual side is underperforming vis-a-vis the mission, and I think this is part of why BYU so far has felt it can discourage scholarship in a Mormon vein without undermining its mission much.

    Rachel (#24), on p49 in the middle of the right column Hancock draws the distinction pretty clearly between the humanities and social sciences, which are his main concern in this article, and other areas such as the natural sciences and pre-professional programs. He’s basically accepting that the natural sciences need to follow mainstream methods, and that this is not a problem for the university’s mission.

  32. Ben Huff on February 18, 2014 at 1:21 pm

    James, I kind of agree with your #1, but I don’t see how this gets BYU off the hook. BYU sets the trend as much as anything—where else would you expect academic-level theology to be done? BYU is roughly representative of what’s typical in the church as whole on this point, but universities are not supposed to be just typical in their intellectual depth! They’re supposed to have a lot more to offer. And based on what’s happening in Church History, it looks to me like Salt Lake is very interested in seeing more high-quality scholarship on Mormonism, so if anything, it looks like BYU is behind the game.

    I also kind of agree with your #2, but I think Hancock’s reasoning is in line with this, so I’m not sure I see your point. He agrees BYU professors, at least collectively, need to do a significant amount of scholarship that will be recognized as quality scholarship by the wider academic world. But the university has decided (formally or informally) to make this the *only* thing that counts, professionally, for faculty. So it looks to me like it’s the university that has made this an either/or that it doesn’t have to be, not Hancock.

    As for #3, I just don’t agree. I don’t see these simplistic equations in the article. I’m afraid the over-simplification tends to be in the ears of people who don’t like to see secularism or liberalism (or maybe even relativism) criticized and don’t listen carefully enough to appreciate the nuance. If you give more evidence, I’m willing to discuss it.

    I do agree that he is flying at a high altitude here, though, and so there are many points where he is referring to a general trend or principle without discoursing at length about it. This is a 5.5-page piece of journalism, whose primary focus is on BYU, not secularism as such or these other things. What do you expect?

    As for specific organizational changes, how about (a) building “cooperative alliances” with other academic institutions outside the mainstream (including, I would suggest, religious universities), to expand our sense of what respectable scholarship looks like, (b) investing more resources in faculty development “carefully attuned to the distinctive nature of the institution,” (like some he mentions in a section from p51 to p52), and (c) connecting these faculty development efforts, including things like research grants, with “the career incentives that shape the faculty’s priorities.” Hancock mentions all of these points in the last page of the article. Why do I have to point them out to you?

    None of these proposals are hard to envision; any more detailed proposals would be out of place in a national publication. But Hancock feels it is important to argue for their importance precisely because he does not share your assumption that BYU is already on board with promoting Mormon thought. He described a faculty meeting where the faculty were told that was not their job, and from what I know of the evaluation process, the sentiments expressed at that meeting are reflected in it. Even if it is true that most faculty, individually, would like to see high caliber Mormon thought taking place, if the institution does not support it through the professional evaluation process, it will be very hard for anyone to do it at a professional level of seriousness.

  33. Xenophon on February 18, 2014 at 6:28 pm

    From the First Things article: “If I had a detailed strategy to redirect the inertia now leading BYU toward a potentially disastrous collision with its religious mission, this would not be the place to lay it out. Let me just make it clear that a radically separatist strategy, one in which we simply turn our backs on the academic establishment, is not only impossible but incoherent. If we believe the development of the spirit is in some way bound up with the development of the mind, then the only way beyond secular philosophies is through them — with the guidance, to be sure, of scripture, prophecy, and personal revelation. The task of transcending the world is inseparable from that of understanding and appreciating what is good in it, including the good reasoning of people with whom we ultimately disagree.” Nicely put. Does BYU have a distinctive mission? What is it? Should it have a distinctive mission? Why or why not? These are good questions to consider.

  34. James Olsen on February 18, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    Ben:

    Pt. 1: You kind of agree, and I agree with your kind-of-agreeable response (it’s obviously not in tension with my original statement). BYU need not be entirely beholden to SLC on this issue, though SLC’s thoughts will be far more relevant and influential than on, say, evolutionary biology or engineering. If we have an at best tepid response from SLC, I’m not sure how we motivate the project at BYU (which doesn’t mean it can’t be motivated elsewhere, as has been the case with Mormon history).

    Pt. 2: As originally stated, this isn’t meant to be in disagreement with Hancock; this is where I start to manifest concern with his tone and focus. I think his finger pointing is overbalanced with regard to the main thrust of his essay (which, hopefully, we’ve now established that we both agree on what that point is – the worthwhile nature of at least the humanities and social sciences at BYU grappling explicitly and institutionally with the “big questions” of faith and reasons, exploring whether there is a distinctly Mormon approach or whether we can contribute to a generally religious alternative to merely secular, rigidly naturalistic attempts).

    Pt. 3: I’m already devoting more time to this than I should [note: I plan on this being my last response], and I can’t go back through his piece as carefully as we both might like in order to substantiate my characterization. So I fail on that challenge. However, I’ll say two things: first, he uses the terms liberal, progressive, secular, and relativist interchangeably, all pointing to the same phenomenon; I take that as evidence for my equivalence claim. And while you rub shoulders with more ethicists than I do, Georgetown has scads of them. I’ve never met one that was a relativist. What’s more, when I teach intro to ethics I think it’s important to have a relativism reading since it’s a default undergraduate position to take (a lazy, unreflective one), and simply finding a respectable normative ethicist espousing relativism is a major challenge (I’ve had to settle for a meta-ethicist). Second, the way Hancock set up his binaries, it feels like if you don’t simply agree with him or his vision of how things are and ought to go, then you are (wittingly or unwittingly) duped by the dominant paradigm in higher education. Even if this were true (which it’s not), it’s not the smartest way to write your essay if you want to influence anyone who’s not already firmly in your camp. The comments here seem ample evidence that generally intelligent, educated, faithful and interested Mormons who don’t share Hancock’s specific concerns are rather turned off by his approach.

    So to repeat myself, Hancock’s essay is not merely a pep-rally – he’s pointing to an issue I personally care a lot about and that I think is a very serious issue today, one that ought to concern a lot of us. But he’s doing so in a manner that will (again to repeat, unfortunately) almost surely lead folks to dismiss him.

    As to the concrete proposals – you’re right, and I should’ve written my comments more carefully. Apologies to Hancock. I ought to have stated that I feel his point would’ve been much better served had he reversed his emphasis: an introduction with the high altitude conceptual framework and anecdotes, followed by the rest of his essay focused on discussing the proposals, their implications and merits. Perhaps especially in a short, op-ed style essay, this would be a more effective approach.

    Finally, let me just repeat that my comments here are meant to be constructive and not dismissive. However unsavory and sometimes misguided I find Hancock’s style, he’s advocating something I agree with and care about, and I hope this point is clear.

  35. BHodges on February 18, 2014 at 8:01 pm

    I’ve never taken classes at BYU but I work there now. Speaking for myself, I can say Hancock’s essay doesn’t match up with my own experiences with other scholars or administrators at BYU, and I certainly don’t recognize the Maxwell Institute in his critique, although it has been an implied target of the piece.

  36. mtnmarty on February 18, 2014 at 8:18 pm

    Who will sound the ecumenical alarm? I see a much greater threat in the increasing Catholic/LDS affinity of students than in secularism.

  37. Brad on February 18, 2014 at 8:42 pm

    I think, perhaps, that Professor Hancock is drawing on his experience in the political science department and generalizing it to all of social science. Whether he is wrong or right I am not qualified to say, but perhaps I can speak of my experience as a recent political science graduate in order to illuminate his perspective a bit.

    When I first began as a political science major before my mission in 2005, the political philosophy department was large. Several big names, including Professors Hancock, Holland, Reynolds, and Bohn, headlined a series of interesting classes asking the sorts of transcendental questions discussed in the essay. But in the last few years, and most especially around the time I graduated in 2011, the political science department lost or was about to lose most of their political philosophers. Most of the new hires were in quantitative based American and Electoral politics. There was a palpable switch from transcendental, purpose-based questions to hard data and econometrics. Professor Hancock has been in the department throughout this entire switch, and I would imagine it served as a major inspiration for this article.

  38. Ben Huff on February 18, 2014 at 8:48 pm

    James (#34), you’re right that most people who officially do ethics are not relativists, because they have thought it through far enough to see that relativism is incoherent. But there are plenty of anthropologists and English professors and other people who say the kind of sloppy things that amount to relativism. Methodological relativism is everywhere—the practice of bracketing questions of right and wrong in order to proceed with “objective” inquiry (objective according to a certain notion of objectivity). Many people then absorb this methodological relativism so thoroughly that they start to think of it as the objectively right way to think, rather than merely as the useful intellectual exercise that it is.

    So, the status of relativism is complex. There are various forms of it, etc. Indeed, it is a bit tricky to pin down when someone is a relativist, because relativism is an inherently incoherent position. How does one identify the positive holding of an incoherent position? What does it even mean to refer to an incoherency as a belief or -ism? But the kind of confusion and confused talk and writing that relativism represents is very much present, especially in the thinking of students, shaped by the many forms of moral confusion in the contemporary academy.

    Ralph didn’t go into this, of course; one doesn’t have time for many such sidetracks in five pages. My guess is that you just didn’t follow him, weren’t sure how to connect and distinguish what he was saying about liberalism, secularism, relativism, etc., without more specific explanation of his assumptions, and so it all ran together for you in a way that didn’t seem like much help. Well, such are the hazards of concise journalistic writing. Regular readers of First Things will have been talking about this cluster of terms and the phenomena they represent for quite a while, so it will be a different experience for them.

    Blair, I’m not sure what makes you think MI is a target of this piece; I don’t see any sign of that. But while MI is set up in part to support scholarship on Mormonism, as far as I know it does not change the criteria for evaluating faculty, so I don’t see that it counts against his point, anyway.

  39. Rachel Whipple on February 18, 2014 at 8:51 pm

    European Saint and Ben,
    He does call out the humanities and social sciences specifically, but before and after that, speaks of BYU and its faculty in general. And even his caveat for the non-humanities feels like a condemnation of them for not going out of their way to defend the faith:

    “Most of my colleagues will surely be surprised, not to say appalled, by my suggestion that on the whole they are succumbing to a secular paradigm. Many teach in pre-professional, technical, and natural-scientific fields that can for the most part be safely insulated from the questions of ultimate purpose that condition our understanding of the meaning of education. It is in the social sciences and humanities that the tension manifests itself between a specialized and reductionist view and a more holistic understanding of human existence, social, moral, and political.”

    Note that Ralph explicitly states that on the whole his colleagues, even those people who feel insulated because they are in natural sciences, have succumbed to the secular paradigm. His condemnation, while most specifically directed at the humanities and social sciences, applies to the entire university.

    He later writes:

    “All these inter- or transdisciplinary initiatives provide significant opportunities to BYU faculty interested in the integration of religious and intellectual life, but their effect is limited by their being completely disconnected from the career incentives that shape the faculty’s priorities and therefore the opportunities open to their students. Any time a scholar might invest in learning about Daniel Robinson’s Aristotelian critique of the paradigms of contemporary psychology, or about Roger Scruton’s critique of the reductionism of neuroscience, it must be regarded as a sacrifice of his own professional interests and not as constitutive of his BYU functions, for he is effectively getting paid to publish as much as possible as quickly as possible in the organs sanctioned by the scientistic and specialized mainstream.”

    This last sounds like a criticism that goes beyond the humanities. Publish or perish is a real phenomena, and it does affect a professor’s application for CFS status. If we want BYU to be different, but still have top notch people, we need to include another criteria for BYU faculty related to devotional output. It seems to be what Ralph is calling for, not just in the humanities, but throughout the university.

    It is fine if we want BYU to be unique, fine, but don’t force everyone to wear their faith in their academic publications and conference presentation. While Hancock does seem to recognize that the natural sciences are not as guilty as social sciences and the humanities, they are not excluded from his criticism. But that may be because it a bigger, more dramatic statement to call the entire university to repentance instead of just a few humanities professors.

  40. rb on February 18, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    European Saint,

    Your comment at 25 was ostensibly directed to my question, but the comment answers some other question or perhaps you were responding to someone else on this thread. Let me put it this way. Assume Prof. Hancock’s, and yours I gather from your comment, worst fears are realized, what does it mean for the COJCLDS? I could not care less about the drift of BYU towards or away from secularism but I do care a great deal about the Church. What is the impact to the Church? Are we going to have to suffer more or fewer Randy Botts that cause all Mormons tremendous embarassments regardless of their BYU affiliation? So you agree with Professor Hancok and lament what you preceive as a creeping secularism at BYU. Why should Mormons at large with no connection to BYU really care about the direction of BYU? A secular minded BYU plus its honor code, ecclesiastical endorsements and special housing requirements will produce a similar kind of Mormon BYU grad, no? And if not, so what? I don’t see any harm to the body of the Church.

    And, in true Mormon fashion I may be frugal-cheap to my kids-but I don’t have to pony up the $1.99 to read Professor Hancock’s musings. There’s a free link in the OP! More valuable than the money, however, is my time. If this has a wider impact on the Church, then I will consider investing some of my time to come up to speed on Profesor Hancock’s concerns. But, its impact is limited to BYU and the students who attend, my time will be better spend on Julie Smith’s outstanding post on modesty. That is a piece of writing well worth paying to read.

  41. BHodges on February 18, 2014 at 11:38 pm

    Ben: I’m glad to know you don’t see Maxwell Institute goings-on through the frame Hancock is trying to hold up, because I don’t either, nor do I think anyone else should. He’s short on specifics in this piece, as he’s been in other similar pieces. Accurately articulating the perspective of those he opposes is not his strong suit. In fact, it seems to me his chief academic crime is a failure to fairly/accurately represent the positions he seeks to oppose. It’s one of the reasons I don’t feel like engaging him in detail.

  42. Michael Umphrey on February 19, 2014 at 1:09 am

    Is there anything to those typological readings of history–Moses prefiguring Christ and such? Is a view of history that includes an authoring role for deity reconcilable with professional historiography?

  43. Xenophon on February 19, 2014 at 1:51 am

    BYU was the academic descendent of the school of the prophets. The Lord himself said: “Behold, I say unto you, concerning the school in Zion, I, the Lord, am well pleased that there should be a school in Zion” (D&C 97:3) If there is any question why BYU should be different from other universities, or whether or not there should be a BYU at all, one need simply recall President Holland’s landmark speech at the annual University Conference in 1988 (http://fc.byu.edu/jpages/ee/w_jrh88.htm). Here are a few pearls to whet your appetite:

    “That is the real merging we someday have to do here–not only organizing and pruning and prioritizing the world’s knowledge all about us but also fusing gospel insights and gospel perspectives into every field and discipline of study.”

    “Whether we like it or not, we are going to have to return to Brigham Young’s ideals of education; we may fight it all the way, but in the end God will keep us after school until we learn our lesson” (Nibley on The Timely and the Timeless, p. 251-52). FWIW, Hancock’s article makes much more sense in light of this powerful speech.

  44. John C. on February 19, 2014 at 3:23 am

    European Saint,
    I just want to know where lucy is. It’s not really a Hancock thread unless lucy shows up, don’t you think?

  45. Ben H on February 19, 2014 at 8:26 am

    Blair (#41), casually tossing around words like “academic crime” in a public forum does not reflect well on you or on the Maxwell Institute. They hired you to help them with their internet presence? And this is how you write on the internet, about Mormon Studies? In a thread where you are the only one who is suggesting that the MI has somehow been maligned, or even mentioned?

  46. Ben H on February 19, 2014 at 9:09 am

    Yes, Rachel (#39)—Hancock is aiming this criticism at the university as a whole. The university as a whole has a mission to educate young Mormons, as Mormons, and in a certain sense everyone involved in the university bears a part of that responsibility. The way it applies to various individuals certainly varies, though.

    The humanities and social sciences have a different and more central role in the discussion of transcendence and morals that Hancock is talking about than the natural sciences. Natural science folks aren’t really in a position to do a lot about it if the humanities and social sciences are falling down on the job. So in a way they are innocent bystanders. Hancock doesn’t spend long on it, but it seems to me when he says that “pre-professional, technical, and natural-scientific fields . . . can for the most part be safely insulated from the questions of ultimate purpose,” he is saying that following mainstream standards is not much of a problem for the mission in those fields, and when colleagues in those areas hear him, they are justified in saying that his criticisms don’t really apply, or only marginally apply, to them. The word “succumb” reflects the way the idea reads in cases where embracing mainstream, secular standards is a problem. I don’t think he means to apply that word where he sees the embrace of these standards as appropriate, as in the natural sciences.

    But the university, collectively, needs to come up with the goods to sustain a sophisticated Mormon perspective on the world. Where natural science work is called for in this picture, it is important to have scientists who are willing and able. For example, in considering the relevance of DNA studies to the claims of the Book of Mormon, it has been very important to have a reputable geneticist or few at BYU who can clear things up. In writing as geneticists, such people should stick to the empirically-tested knowledge base of their discipline, but it is important that they not shrink from the fact that this will mean mentioning the Book of Mormon in writing that carries their name. This is not the sort of thing that I would expect to be published in a mainstream genetics research journal, but it is a responsibility that falls on BYU and in this case to people in a scientific field. Writing about genetics and the Book of Mormon migration accounts does not go contrary to true standards of empirical science research, but it may feel risky to them given prejudice against Mormonism among some of their colleagues in the larger scene. So people in the natural sciences, too, need to be willing to do work that does not exactly fit the usual profile of work in their fields from time to time, in meeting their responsibilities as BYU faculty, without confusing the boundaries between different kinds of work for different audiences. If someone balks at having his or her name associated with an article that mentions the Book of Mormon, I would call that succumbing to the desire for praise of the world.

    As you suggest, though, a geneticist in this position might actually worry, not about her peers at other institutions, but about her department chair or dean objecting or being unwilling to give credit for such work in the service of the BYU mission, toward CFS and other kinds of evaluation/promotion. In that case, I would say that the faculty member’s concern may be legitimate, and the chair or dean may have succumbed, or that university policy appears to succumb, to the vain desire for the praise of the world. It is important that BYU do reputable work, recognizable and recognized as such elsewhere, and concern for that goal is not vain, but when it leads to neglect of key elements of BYU’s distinctive mission, it becomes overblown and vain. It is essential that the administration be ready to give credit for quality work that serves the distinctive features of BYU’s mission, to support faculty who do it in good faith service to that mission and to the church. (But see my recent post on additional reasons for hesitation about wholesale commitment to Mormon Studies work)

    Equally importantly, where natural science folks play a role in university policies that affect the evaluation of people in the social sciences and humanities, where spiritual and moral issues are most relevant—particularly if they go into the upper administration—then Hancock’s concerns would be relevant to them in that role.

    As it happens, given the way that work on Mormonism has for the most part been marginalized as effectively a hobby for BYU professors that do it, some of the people in the natural sciences can make contributions just as important as what humanists and social scientists are doing, even on humanistic subjects—think of Sam Brown, whose education is mainly in medicine. He’s not a BYU guy, of course, but there are BYU natural science/engineering types doing significant work on Mormon issues. As long as this is not part of many people’s day job anyway, we really need those people, even where they are working outside their professional expertise.

  47. BHodges on February 19, 2014 at 9:34 am

    Ben H: By “academic crime” I mean to indicate a failure to follow general rules of scholarly exchange. As I said before, I’m glad to know you don’t see MI goings-on through the frame Hancock is trying to hold up, because I don’t either. As for “helping with internet presence,” no, my job entails a bit more than that. Commenting on this post isn’t part of my job, although your criticism of me is actually on point, given the context of the discussion (including questions about whether BYU people are willing to publicly discuss controversial things).

  48. BHodges on February 19, 2014 at 9:36 am

    (Also it should go without saying, but it’s inconsistent to say I’m overreacting re: the MI, but then say “Yes, Rachel (#39)—Hancock is aiming this criticism at the university as a whole.”)

  49. DLewis on February 19, 2014 at 9:51 am

    This is an important discussion. One of the limitations I find with Hancock’s article, a limitation that I think Ben H. here has started to remedy in his follow-up post, is a clearer sense of who deserves the blame (or credit, depending on your view) for BYU’s current condition. Hancock seems to find fault with his fellow professors, but my sense is that the disciplinary actions against faculty members from administrators who have published unorthodox work on Mormonism have created a silencing effect that has curtailed even relatively benign or even orthodox approaches. While attending a summer seminar at the Maxwell Institute one year after graduating (just a few years ago), I was warned by a former teacher to avoid such venues, as it might torpedo any chances of being hired at BYU. This charge was probably inaccurate, but that is precisely the point: professors still sense the climate for Mormon-inflected scholarship at BYU to be very chilly. A good friend of mine with ambitions to do precisely the sort of work that Hancock is calling for (though perhaps not with the same political persuasions) was told that an interview was out of the question because he was briefly affiliated with a Mormon studies venue–and that decision was coming from higher up the chain than the professors. The incentives are simply not there: why would a professor risk professional suicide if his Mormon scholarship is deemed too unorthodox? Blaming professors is easy; encouraging administrators and the powers-that-be to cultivate a robust environment for Mormon approaches to scholarship is a much more ambitious and necessary task, one which Hancock seems to skirt.

    One final note: it would be helpful if Hancock could name a feature of Mormonism besides the Proclamation to the Family that BYU scholars should build their work upon. Certainly there is more to Mormonism than that one document.

  50. Ben H on February 19, 2014 at 10:07 am

    Blair, I am not going to fasten on a single word. Thanks for a toned-down restatement. But let’s not toss around generalizations about some person’s good or bad academic habits on a thread on a specific issue and article. Do you think he is misrepresenting someone in this article? If so, let’s have some support for your allegation. Otherwise talk is cheap.

    As for MI, I don’t see that Ralph is aiming anything specifically at MI in this article. As you note, he is saying some things about the university as a whole, though, and MI certainly bears a responsibility to contribute to fulfilling the university’s mission. Just how MI would fit into what he says? Is MI involved with faculty development? Does it have faculty of its own, and if so, how are they evaluated? To what degree does MI favor the standards of the secular academy in the work it supports/publishes, as compared with promoting the articulation of a distinctively Mormon intellectual outlook, or work that proceeds on distinctively Mormon premises? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but they would seem to be very live questions, given how MI has rebranded itself lately, among other things.

  51. Howard on February 19, 2014 at 10:30 am

    …it has been very important to have a reputable geneticist or few at BYU who can clear things up…It is important that BYU do reputable work

    Clears things up? DNA is something secular science doesn’t understand?

    It seems to me these two sentences taken together add up to either an oxymoron or apologetics. Are you actually proposing apologetics be taught as scientific method? If not why not just add a DNA apologetics class to the religion curriculum?

  52. Jonathan Green on February 19, 2014 at 11:02 am

    It’s really not that unusual for universities to have broader aims than narrowly disciplinary or pre-professional education. Liberal arts colleges tend to define themselves that way, and many Catholic institutions include language about “educating the whole person” in their mission statements. It’s eminently reasonable for Ralph Hancock to argue that BYU should have a distinctively Mormon holistic mission, and that it has moved too far towards a narrower mission. I don’t necessarily agree with that – there are some parts of his article I agree with, and other parts I disagree with – but it’s an argument that should be taken seriously.

    (I disagree somewhat that academic over-specialization is one of the culprits, however. Engaging in large-scale debates when you don’t have a firm grasp on the messy details is a sure way to write specious stuff that quickly loses value. It takes time, a lot of time, to master the primary and secondary literature of a field in a way that allows you to say something new and useful, and the broader the field, the more time it takes.)

    Finally, it seems like there’s an obvious solution to wanting BYU professors to engage with the Mormon community rather than only their scholarly peers. Faculty duties are typically broken down into research, teaching, and service. Work that benefits a university’s constituents rather than its students or scholarly fields is typically regarded as service. Instead of asking BYU professors to align their research programs in some way with their religion, just redefine service to include sharing their expertise with the broader Mormon community. It seems like a win-win situation for everybody.

  53. mtnmarty on February 19, 2014 at 11:10 am

    Ben,

    I am interested in what alternatives there are to specialized, disciplinary standards and methodology for scholars and scholarship.

    There tend to be two primary levels of this in universities a disciplinary level and a university level. Secular learning also has a weakness in scholarship that cuts across disciplines.

    The university level plays a role in establishing what it will have as specialties fine arts: yes, sports: yes, astrology: no, theology: sometimes, witchcraft: no, etc.

    Each specialty then has its own standards that tend to be shared across universities.

    So, it would seem to matter a great deal how the non-specialization would be handled. Is it a unilateral(relative to current disciplines) expansion for each discipline – how mormonism grounds and informs law, business, medicine, literature, philosophy, politics, astronomy, mathematics, etc. in other words building out a “a mormon schoool of thought” within each discipline.

    Or is it a new discipline like mormon scholarship with its own standards, including presumably fasting, prayer, revelation and spiritual confirmation as part of the methodology.

    Or is it something else entirely.

  54. DavidF on February 19, 2014 at 11:17 am

    So how do you handle the issue of when science bumps up against 19th century dogmas that are valued by the religious institution? Is there a third way that can still be true to the faith while embracing scientific reality? It seems doubtful. Maybe the solution is to drop science and focus on law, business and other disciplines that aid the intelligence community. This way you don’t have to deal with the pesky issues such as DNA and evolution and can effectively train the next generation of corporate propagandists.

  55. Ben H on February 19, 2014 at 11:48 am

    Jonathan (#52), on your first point, exactly. BYU sometimes seems to have walled itself off a bit from the recognition of how normal it is to be different, perhaps because many of the more quirky places are back East, or because, well, we are different enough from them that we don’t get what they are doing. Sometimes I think we exaggerate in our own minds how much we need to assimilate, compensating perhaps for being a minority group with a short history. I currently work at an institution (R-MC) that defines itself rather ambitiously as a liberal arts institution and bravely swims against the mainstream. It’s exciting, and I see many parallels with BYU.

    Your proposal to count Mormon Studies as service, or in a similar way, is also promising. Certainly it is important to keep straight the different kinds of scholarship and not let the more conventional kind slide too much.

    mtnmarty (#53), these are important questions. In my field, philosophy, it seems fairly straightforward because there are religious philosophers who are still taken very seriously in contemporary study, like Thomas Aquinas, so there are plenty of historical examples. Still, the methods of philosophy have morphed over time and between traditions (Greek, Islamic, Chinese, Enlightenment), partly in connection to various philosophical tenets (e.g. God exists, or doesn’t), so there are still important questions to address in establishing a philosophical method appropriate to Mormonism. This itself would be (and is already) a subject of debate among Mormon philosophers. Other disciplines would have to do some creative work to tweak their own norms.

    There is a lot of good work to be done, though, using standard methods, but just applying them to issues of interest in a Mormon context, which mainstream journals and publishers might just not care to bother with, not because of methodological objections but just because they aren’t interested in the subject matter. So we shouldn’t exaggerate the methodological questions.

    DavidF (#54), in my view the findings of science done right and thoroughly will not be incompatible with the deliverances of revelation. Of course, there will always be debates over which scientific claims are based on conclusive research and which are not.

  56. Kristine on February 19, 2014 at 12:14 pm

    One good first step might be to quit penalizing BYU faculty members/job applicants for publishing Mormon Studies work in Dialogue.

    Just sayin.’ There are only so many pages in BYUSQ.

  57. Kristine on February 19, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    The above is not an entirely self-serving comment :) BYU faculty have a not ill-founded fear that publishing anything about Mormonism is potentially dangerous. That’s a pretty effective deterrent to the kind of engagement Ralph seems to be promoting.

  58. mtnmarty on February 19, 2014 at 12:20 pm

    Ben H,

    Your comments seem sensible, but they don’t seem to be gong down the same path as Hancock’s anti-specialization and concerns with promoting the religious and political implications of morals.

  59. MDKI on February 19, 2014 at 12:55 pm

    There are only so many pages in BYUSQ.

    Actually, BYUSQ is in on it too. Ralph Hancock:

    Another example, just a kind of straw in the wind, I could mention (that isn’t in the article): I believe I have shown that Joanna Brooks has a militant agenda (at least last time I checked, and along with her partner John Dehlin) to change the church (aka “open it up to…”) to align with progressive-liberationist agenda. (Am I the only person alive to criticize her in print, at least as a careful, scholarly reader?) Now there are FAVORABLE, not to say sycophantic reviews of her famous MORMON GIRL in both BYU Studies and in Mormon Studies Review. Can you imagine that either would have published my painstaking criticism, based upon a careful reading. No — that would be “divisive,” unseemly (i.e., conservative, = taking positions like GAs in General Conference). Pas d’ennemi a gauche: we may not agree with Brooks about everything, but she is one of us, one of our academic guild, and we would never be so impolite as to take her arguments seriously by engaging them.

    So consider our outcome: at allegedly conservative BYU, Joanna Brooks is practically mainstream, and I am … you know, that conservative at BYU. That unusual “conservative”… at BYU.

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson/2014/02/byu-and-the-culture-wars.html#comment-1248291516

  60. Kristine on February 19, 2014 at 1:05 pm

    I wonder if Professor Hancock actually submitted his review for publication anywhere–then we wouldn’t have to just imagine what the outcome might have been. I have asked him in the past to contribute to Dialogue, fwiw.

  61. Dave on February 19, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    As a practical matter, what does the sort of missing “Mormon scholarship” we are talking about and that Ralph Hancock is referring to look like? Here are some choices of actual Mormon scholarship:

    1 – Religious education via religion classes as presently practiced at BYU or through Institutes.
    2 – Religious studies scholarship through an LDS lens, as presently practiced by the Maxwell Institute.
    3 – LDS apologetics scholarship as presently practiced by the Interpreter and formerly practiced by the Maxwell Institute.
    4 – Independent Mormon scholarship as published in journals like Dialogue, JMH, and BYU Studies and through publishers like Kofford Books, Signature, NAMI, and the Religious Studies Center.

    I don’t think Hancock recognizes any of these ongoing, actually occurring examples of Mormon scholarship as being what he wants. It’s not clear he actually has a specific description of what he wants. If he did, we could talk about it and why it wouldn’t work or why the Mormon scholarship that is actually occurring (see my list) does it better.

    As for BYU, it’s clear the purpose of the university is to provide a good university education in a positive LDS environment (Honor Code and standards) with uplifting instruction in the faith (religion classes) by professors who are scholars in their respective fields and who support the other aspects of BYU’s mission (standards; Mormonism). It is simply NOT a mission of BYU to create alternative scholarship or pseudo-scholarship that is an amalgam of secular scholarship and Mormonism. That applies to social science and the humanities as well as natural science. I don’t know why anyone thinks BYU ought to be trying to do this. It is a recipe for failure if not disaster. BYU has succeeded in large part because it has AVOIDED doing that.

  62. Ben H on February 19, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    Sure, Kristine, the sense that Mormon Studies is a political minefield is a real deterrent.

    Dave, #1 is not scholarship, but teaching, so no, it’s not what Hancock is talking about, though it is important to BYU’s mission too. Otherwise I think everything else you mention would count to one degree or another toward what he is calling for. These are broad categories, so some of it will be a mixed bag. I’m sure there are other things he would like to see as well.

    But if this kind of thing is regarded as at best irrelevant, and potentially a negative when it comes to evaluation and promotion for BYU faculty, then BYU faculty are not going to do much of it, which is what we are seeing right now—not much compared to the potential. There should be a much larger, richer, and better organized ecosystem of work within a Mormon worldview when we get our act together, and it matters whether BYU faculty are involved in it, both for the health of the ecosystem, and for their own intellectual development. Hancock’s point in this article is primarily not about the general ecosystem (which he is aware of), but about BYU, and the impact of participation or non-participation on BYU.

    You say that it is clear that creating a distinctively Mormon body of scholarship is not part of BYU’s mission—what are your reasons for saying this? Do you disagree with President Kimball’s exhortation to “break with the educational establishment” and “do what the world cannot”? Or are you saying that this does not apply to scholarship?

    Apparently you think President Holland was mistaken in his talk about “A School in Zion,” which Xenophon helpfully links above. Here are a few more quotations:

    “I do not believe that Brigham Young University, at least with current policies governing both funding and mission, will or should ever aspire to be a great research university as the world defines research universities.”

    “We have to have teachers who are growing in precisely the same manner we expect students to grow—and that requires significant scholarship.”

    “Don’t we have both the advantage and the duty to step forward and rally the whole country in this time of national challenge?”

    “Then why aren’t we doing better than we are?”

    “Could it not be a house of hope and glory to every member of the Church everywhere who is trying to grow, trying to learn, trying to be strong and safe and spiritual in a very secular world?”

    “And defending the faith intelligently is only one kind of aid we might offer our far-flung brothers and sisters, albeit surely the most important one. There are, it seems to me, scores of other kinds as well, in virtually every discipline of the university . . . in most cases it means writing—good writing, strong writing, in all of our disciplines.” (my emphasis)

    “Why have ‘a temple of learning’? How dare I even ask, ‘Why?’ I will tell you exactly why, ‘ . . . so that Satan cannot overthrow us, nor have any power over us here.’ Remember ‘the glory of God is intelligence; or in other words light and truth. [And] light and truth forsake that evil one’ (D&C 93:36, 37).”

    President (now apostle Elder) Holland clearly thought that scholarship that “fus[es] gospel insights and gospel perspectives into every field and discipline of study” was essential to BYU’s mission, and that the university needed to do better on this, as well as some other fronts he mentions in the talk. He says it is necessary both to help students and other church members resist the false notions of the world, and also to cultivate the faculty themselves, in their own spiritual and intellectual growth, and as models of intelligent discipleship for their students. These are essentially the same points Hancock is making.

    If you disagree, Dave, let’s hear more about why.

  63. BHodges on February 19, 2014 at 2:24 pm

    Last comment before I cut out. As per comment #59, it seems Hancock may be more interested in a sort of orthodoxy policing on the part of BYU faculty and scholars. His FT piece is light on details, unfortunately, but the comment he left on that blog post suggests one of his biggest complaints is that people don’t do enough to combat “militant” people like Joanna Brooks. I doubt that is the type of scholarly/faithful engagement we need more of in our times.

  64. Dave on February 19, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    Sounds good in theory (to a general audience), it just doesn’t work in practice. Which doesn’t prevent BYU from succeeding in its mission as I outlined it in my earlier comment. I object to the idea you seem to embrace that there are two sets of rules, one for the natural sciences, which are granted an exemption and allowed to practice secular scholarship, and one for the humanities and social sciences, which you seem to be suggesting have a responsibility to produce Mormonized scholarship rather than first-rate secular scholarship. As far as I can tell, that strange idea applies only to the College of Religious Education. Which you rather oddly locate outside the box labelled “Mormon scholarship.” Hey, if Mormonized scholarship is what you want, what is produced by the College of Religious Education is Exhibit A for what you get. And they do publish articles and books. If that is not your vision of Mormonized scholarship at BYU, then you should rethink your proposal.

  65. Ben Huff on February 19, 2014 at 3:53 pm

    Dave, neither Hancock nor I have suggested that somehow the humanities and social sciences at BYU should do nothing but work on Mormonism. Try reading what I said again, say, #55. You said “classes” in Religious Ed, so of course that is different from scholarship. As for the practical challenges, I have acknowledged at least six in this post. I’ve also written about improving the scholarship and teaching in Religious Ed. specifically, through better use of peer review in this post. So I have set out a number of things about how we get from where we are now—where practically, we can’t do good work on Mormonism on a large scale—to where, practically, we would be able to. I’ve also written about a similar set of issues in my post on “Ecology of Intellectual Culture.”

    I agree that BYU can still do a lot of good as a distinctively Mormon institution, hopefully, even if the scholarly side of engagement with Mormonism is lacking—it’s doing a lot of good at the moment—but it is a fragile situation, because where is the intellectual foundation for the enterprise going to come from?

    I’m arguing that if these practical considerations are addressed appropriately, then we will be able to do lots of Mormon scholarship, and do it well. If you would care to say where you disagree with those ideas, I’m all ears.

  66. Jonathan Green on February 19, 2014 at 4:39 pm

    Just as an aside, I rather suspect that Mormon Studies is mostly irrelevant to Ralph Hancock’s argument, or even an example of something he would see as a problem. Promoting scholarship on Mormon topics at BYU may or may not be worth pursuing, but merely applying the analytic tools of academic disciplines to Mormonism is probably not what he’s hoping for. I think he’s arguing for a Mormon critique of academic disciplines (and other things as well), rather than an academic critique of Mormonism.

  67. mtnmarty on February 19, 2014 at 4:46 pm

    I’m not sure what Hancock has against reductionism. I have typically seen the term applied in the context of people arguing against physics as a model for methodology.

    All scholarship uses reduction, the question is what is being reduced to what. Hancock seems to what to reduce more things to fundamental moral principles and then expand from there, but its hard to tell.

    Its just very hard to see in practice what it means to use transcendent standards. What is the equivalent of a mormon Aquinas? Whatever else he or she is, I think he or she would be very, very reductionistic.

  68. Ben Huff on February 19, 2014 at 5:23 pm

    Jonathan, apparently you think of Mormon Studies as the application of mainstream approaches, with secular premises, to Mormonism. That is not how I think of it. I mean to include a range of things, including that but also work that proceeds from Mormon premises, whether building a positive Mormon perspective/worldview or critiquing other views and approaches. If work that proceeds from and/or expresses Mormon claims is not Mormon Studies, what would you call it?

  69. Howard on February 19, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    Why don’t we just admit science is right and set about explaining the rich allegory that is Mormonism? Think about it, doesn’t that bring a sigh of relief? Or are you still waiting for religion to prove science wrong?

  70. mtnmarty on February 19, 2014 at 7:02 pm

    I think one can get a lot of the results Hancock doesn’t like if one’s mormon premises are the 9th, 11th and 12th articles of faith and one can also reach very different conclusions if one’s mormon premises are 6th, 7th and 10th articles of faith.

    I guess I’m hopelessly reductionistic in that I think there aren’t mormon premises only mormon’s with premises.

  71. Grant on February 19, 2014 at 7:22 pm

    It’s too bad that Prof. Hancock apparently has neither the time or the inclination to participate in this thread of comments (as opposed to Facebook; see comment #59). I assume that he reads Times & Seasons, or is at least aware when its blogposts focus on his published writings. It’s always frustrating to speculate on what an author might have meant, when the author himself (or herself) could easily clarify things. To write a provocative, critical piece for a national audience and then not follow-up–particularly with posts like this one and Ben Huff’s that are basically positive and which try to explore the implications of his ideas–makes his original article seem like a hit-and-run piece. Perhaps he feels like T&S would be hostile to his point of view (which I imagine is why he hasn’t taken up Kristine’s offer to publish in Dialogue), but I see plenty of support here and a genuine desire to engage.

  72. Ben Huff on February 19, 2014 at 10:28 pm

    Grant, of course we would welcome some comments from the author here, but I imagine there are lots of people who would like to talk to him right now, and he has a day job!

  73. Distant Observer on February 20, 2014 at 12:38 am

    Howard #69, As was inevitable, real science — in the form of population genetics — has finally proven the speculative “science” of evolution wrong (at least as to humans), with all its completely implausible (and definitely non-parsimonious) atheism-based creation myths, plus all the philosophical nonsense which has been generated based on those impossible assumptions, but don’t expect the “objective” atheists to ever admit that has happened. The truth is, today’s secular atheists/humanists are poorly educated anti-religious bigots, totally saturated with propaganda to the point of displacing all original thought, not the the great minds and seekers after truth they arrogantly proclaim. This is not the place for an extended discourse on this topic, but I didn’t want your possibly flippant statement to go unchallenged. Obviously, I take an even darker view of what is going on at BYU, where the philosophy of atheism, and its necessary accompanying dogma of evolution, has full administration support at all levels. Someone mentioned that they weren’t sure what such terms as liberalism, progressivism, etc., meant in the Hancock article. I certainly cannot speak for Prof. Hancock, but my own personal definition, which is quite quantifiable, is the extent to which people assign plausibility to atheistic explanations of life, as epitomized by the organic evolution theories. I believe there is at least a 95% correlation between political liberalism and secularism and belief in atheistic explanations for the origin of life.

  74. mtnmarty on February 20, 2014 at 1:43 am

    Distant Observer,

    So, what does population genetics tell us about humans?

    As for the correlation, I’m surprised the correlation isn’t 100% between secularism and atheistic explanations of life especially if one defined secularism in terms of atheism.

    But I’m a bit surprised about the political liberalism part, at least as it relates to those godless communists. Is it really true that there aren’t enough Godless communists left to ruin your correlation or is the tent of liberalism so big these days that even the Chinese count as liberals?

    So, what do you think is behind the dark forces at BYU and where will it spread?

  75. Distant Observer on February 20, 2014 at 2:31 am

    mtnmarty, #74, the most compact single source on this topic is the book “Genetic Entropy” by John C. Sanford which summarizes serious research over the past 60 years (most of it done by good atheists) which demonstrates that the human genome is actually deteriorating at a frightening rate as tens of thousands of deleterious (but obviously nonlethal) mutations are accumulated and passed on to the next generation. This makes it obvious that we are a few hundred generations downstream from a really high quality genome, and our species is already near the end of its practical life. Useful corroborating information from outside the book includes widely available public health studies and reports indicating that in every category of “chronic disease” — cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc. — the world’s population illness rates escalate by at least 0.71% a year. In some examples, such as autism, illness rates have gone up 600% in 20 years. There is no way out of this downward ratchet, as is clearly explained in the book, so the obvious conclusion is that man is not evolving but is devolving, and always has been. From a different line of reporting, in the United States, I believe at least 45% of the people have at least one genetic disease, and that is also climbing rapidly. It would be nice if these theological-oriented atheists would get off their “we are the brights” high horse and do some serious work to alleviate the coming health crisis.

    I have no idea how BYU got to where it is on the evolution issue. I hope someone will finally trace that internal history. But I hope no student or professor at BYU is foolish enough to ask such a question, perhaps not realizing that it is a taboo topic.

  76. Distant Observer on February 20, 2014 at 4:10 am

    I don’t have a good suggestion about where the situation at BYU is going. Perhaps all I can do is ask a different question: If the professors there are required to spend 80% of their waking hours operating in an atheist mode to be successful in their careers, how long can they keep their minds fully compartmentalized with atheism taking up 80% or more of their mind, and theism, Mormon-style, taking up 20% or less of their mind? One might guess that this gross incompatibility cannot go on very long until the “theism” part becomes nothing more than necessary rote behavior. We could end up with a situation as at Notre Dame University where the entire theological department is made up of atheists. How absurd is that? They have been at it longer than we, but perhaps we will follow the same path. If the formal religion faculty at BYU is not large enough to teach all needed classes, and functional atheists are brought in from various other departments to teach religion classes, what effect will that have on the student body which necessarily comes believing, but may not leave that way? Also, there’s no particular reason to believe that the formal religion faculty will itself remain uncontaminated in this hostile situation.

    I notice that there are large numbers of experienced men, devout believers who are not professors, from surrounding communities who are involved in the various BYU stakes and wards. Is it possible that these men must be imported as uncompromised Gospel believers, simply because BYU professors are a spiritually mixed bag? Is it possible that BYU would self-destruct without this uncontaminated outside mixture?

  77. Howard on February 20, 2014 at 9:47 am

    Distant Observer wrote: real science…has finally proven the speculative “science”…wrong.. Gee, you see this as some kind of new trend? I thought this had been going of since the beginning of science and I would expect it to continue, wouldn’t you? But I’m still waiting for some solid evidence for a global flood. Any word on that?

  78. Howard on February 20, 2014 at 10:10 am

    Distant Observer,
    Btw, I don’t see evolution as being necessarily atheistic, why do you?

  79. Distant Observer on February 20, 2014 at 10:41 am

    To Howard, #77, to get rid of all the confusing extra words, science has proved organic evolution to be false. That is not what atheist scientists (or any of today’s secular academics) want to hear. Notice that this is especially disruptive because it is current data that can be endlessly re-created and re-examined from scratch and evaluated carefully from every possible angle. The normal rhetoric of the evolutionists/atheists is to make sure that they only talk about things that can never be proved one way or another, so the debate can be endless, and no assertion can be falsified. Something that supposedly happened millions or billions of years ago, unobserved and unrecorded by man, can never be subjected to the full scientific method. The global flood question becomes unimportant scientifically (and the possible theological quibbles far less important) if repeatable data available today is conclusive on the main issues.

  80. Howard on February 20, 2014 at 11:05 am

    I think I understand your point D.O., science pretends to be impartial but harbors it’s own dogma and turf wars but both acrue human nature rather than to science.

    Scripture is more metaphor than fact and (“real” as you call it) science is more fact than metaphor. That wasn’t true 2,000 years ago nor as true in 1830 as it is in 2014 but it’s past time to recognize this and act accordingly.

  81. mtnmarty on February 20, 2014 at 11:06 am

    The fact that certain species have deleterious mutations (genetic entropy)seems to me evidence for evolution not evidence against it.

    Remember the anti-evolutionists thought that humans were unchanging.

    I agree with you however that honest scientists will admit that we don’t know why the universe exists, why it has laws, how life originated or why we have consciousness.

    Honest believers in God will also admit that knowledge of God hasn’t taught much about either those mysteries or the laws that God’s creation follows.

    Thinking more about God’s creation and less about God has led to a great expansion of knowledge. A short list would include most of the content of the universe which as unknown in Abraham’s time, most of life, bacteria, etc. and most of logic and mathematics.

    To find a compartmentalized mind that can put God aside when studying God’s creation “dark” when it has led to so much light, merely because some have turned atheistic and sinful, is to put man above the glory of God, not the reverse of putting man above God.

  82. Ben Huff on February 20, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Science is a very big subject.

    “Science” may refer to any of:
    1) A set of empirical methods for acquiring knowledge, including techniques such as separation of variables, looking for repeatability, the use of statistics, and so on.
    2) Knowledge attained through such empirical methods.
    3) Theories with various levels of empirical support, some of which are still anything but confirmed (the dividing line between #2 and #3 is always a matter for debate), and some of which will surely be refuted or abandoned as the inquiry progresses.
    4) The people and institutions involved in empirical inquiry, with all their human complexities and imperfections.
    5) The various particular activities of empirical inquiry, or such activity as a body, in some particular point in time or historical period.
    6) A moral enterprise of pursuing knowledge through empirical inquiry, which can take many forms, with very different moral/philosophical components that are not really susceptible to empirical testing—i.e., not really science in the empirical sense. Science in this sense is a philosophy, involving faith in certain ideals.
    7) A philosophy for living that is deeply influenced by the findings of empirical inquiry and their perceived implications.

    One’s feelings about each of these may not be the same, and the way they fit into the life of a religious university may vary. At the same time, they are all intertwined in various ways, in science as a human endeavor. Certainly the formation of the scientific enterprise was a philosophical development, influenced by developments in religious life, including, for some, the rejection of belief in God. And both individual scientists and scientific institutions continue to be shaped by philosophical and moral commitments.

    Debates over particular scientific findings or theories are not going to make much progress here, though; let’s stay close to the topic of the post.

  83. rah on February 21, 2014 at 8:52 am

    As an LDS member who is an empirical sociologist with politically liberal leanings I am directly in the crosshairs of Ralph Hancock’s piece. That is fine. I will say that a BYU made in the image of Ralph Hancock scares me to no end. We could easily become the Bob Jones or Liberty University of the west. I am not sure that does anyone any good. I don’t know if RH would be happy with that outcome or not.

    While I can sympathize with the atomization of scholarship within the disciplines (everyone one says they want cross-disciplinary work but no one publishes it. Only a fool, starry-eyed junior professor would believe such a thing), the links Prof. Hancock wants to draw between this and secularization (and liberal thinking) are tenuous at best. I admit I am no scholar of moral or political philosophy as disciplines but even my relatively shallow understanding of these fields leads me to believe that they are far more diverse and robust than he depicts in his essay.

    Now as to empirical social science, the danger is that when you let the data speak there is no guaranty it is going to neatly back ones particular moral or religious philosophy. It could turn out that kids from gay married families might turn out just as productive and healthy as those from heterosexual families. It could be that certain policies favored by ones political agenda could have consequences exactly the opposite of what one’s ideology predicts. One simply can not be an ethical or honest empiricist if one starts from the premise that ones particular religious views (or those of our leaders) must be compatible with ones future findings. I always believed Mormonism was a religion that proclaims to embrace the truth wherever it is found, a post-enlightenment religion predicated on an open cannon and an open mind. I find it ironic that Prof. Hancock is worried about secularization and the loss of conservative moral philosophy at a time when Mormons (empirically – sorry its in my bones) are at the most politically polarized at any time in their history (in the US). As so many have pointed out, Prof. Hancock is upset at what is happening in the more empirical social sciences but yet his essay just begs for at least some empirical hook to hang his claims that the Y has moved toward secularization, philosophically or in its overall research agenda. It may be my own scholarly myopia and training, but I just can’t find the desire to really engage without some shred of proof beyond a couple of whining undergrad students that there is some big movement against conservative thought at the Y.

  84. Mtnmarty on February 21, 2014 at 9:53 am

    Rah,

    Rah, rah,rah!

    Hancock believes ethical and honest empiricists are naive fools.

  85. Ben H on February 21, 2014 at 10:01 am

    So, D.O., your point about faculty spending 80% of their time talking as though there is no God, and they have no commitment to Mormon beliefs, and the risk that this makes it hard to maintain those beliefs, is more or less right in line with Hancock’s concerns that the secular modes and ideas are going unchallenged and leaving a religious perspective voiceless. It’s a tricky question, of course, because officially speaking science doesn’t take a position one way or the other on the existence of God. By “officially,” here, I mean that since God cannot be put in a test tube or what have you—is not publicly available for empirical measurement—science rightly understood as an empirical inquiry does not and cannot take a position one way or the other. Of course many actual human scientists, and institutions they run, have a philosophical commitment to atheism, and this means that people who do science are putting themselves in a situation where there may be a lot of pressure to ditch their religious beliefs. Others, though, feel they are studying God’s creation, and so for them their scientific work is an expression of their faith, even when they are talking about how species descend from a common ancestor and what have you—evolution in the modest sense.

    I suppose your point about genetics offering evidence against human evolution can be taken as a move to retain science (the empirical method) while ditching some of the atheistic philosophical baggage that gets associated with it. It seems clear to me that religious universities like BYU absolutely need to retain the sound tools and practices of science (empirical methods), and of course resist the atheistic philosophical baggage one way or another.

    Ultimately, though, it seems to me this is mainly a human problem, not a scientific one. The human problem is that a lot of the actual people involved in science are non-believers, and a significant portion of them are aggressively opposed to religious belief, and use the authority of their positions to promote, yes, atheism, some more openly than others. This is actually the same problem we see in the university system generally.

    One could try to solve this problem scientifically, by, say, disproving the theory that life arose by chance, and maybe the data cooperate. But as a way to solve the human problem, I am not sure that this is going to work. Science these days is so complex and sprawling, both in terms of the knowledge side (both data and theories) and the human side (people, institutions, journals, etc.), that it is hard to grab hold of one piece and, by pressing on it, make the whole rest of it move. Everything is interconnected, in principle, but the connections are often indirect and complicated. I suspect that people who want to defend evolution will come up with all kinds of competing narratives about what the genetic data might mean, to the extent that they are pressed, while many of them will just say, “That can’t be right,” and go on their merry way. Science (as a practice) is a big ship, and if there is someone on board you don’t really want to talk to, it is not that hard to avoid them.

    So it seems to me that empirical findings alone are not going to be enough to shift the mindset in the science world. If we want to build a space in which people (students and faculty) can be practicing scientists (empirical methods) without feeling pressure to ditch religion, we need to address the 80/20 problem and create an intellectual environment on the moral and philosophical side that is friendly to belief. Of course the empirical findings are important, too, including findings that problematize existing notions of human origins, but we can’t just stand back and expect one line of empirical inquiry to do all the work.

  86. Distant Observer on February 21, 2014 at 3:39 pm

    In reply to #85, I believe you are correct that we cannot “expect one line of empirical inquiry to do all the work,” but it seems like a good place to start in showing the need for a (quantifiable) secularist alarm. In reply to #83, I wanted to somehow make it clear that, although Prof. Hancock does not make it particularly empirical in his essay, there is what I consider a very quantifiable “empirical hook… that the Y has moved toward secularization….” to be found in the very wide, perhaps ubiquitous, acceptance throughout the University of all the main tenets of atheistic evolution, including such things as the theist/deist/atheist “compromise,” of reducing the ancient God, assuming there was one, to the status of a tree fairy, with nothing more important to do for billions of years than observe, on one small sphere, the chance formation of life’s necessary proteins, who either doesn’t have, or doesn’t bother to use, the vast creative powers assigned to God in the Scriptures. The grandeur of God as described in the Book of Moses does not merge well with that deist/atheist copout, and those who start at that low level never seem to get around to explaining how this nearly powerless and very localized “tree fairy” is going to create and maintain a heaven, resurrect us, judge and assign us with fairness, etc., as is required for our religion to have any long term meaning. This enormous failure to deal with the necessary theological aspects and consequences of a widespread acceptance of atheism is true even (or especially) in the religion department. See the pro-evolution essays in “Converging Paths to Truth,” 2011, edited by Michael D Rhodes, “Published by the Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, in cooperation with Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City.” How can even the religion department be so clueless about what is going on all around them? Actually, I assume they are not clueless, but are actually on one side or the other of this debate, but the debate itself is administratively suppressed. Academic freedom issues, anyone?

  87. mtnmarty on February 21, 2014 at 4:10 pm

    Distant observer,

    How do we assess how often God intervenes in the world? You mentioned human evolution and the origin of life as one area. What other areas do you think God operates differently that natural law? Gravitation and astronomic objects? Nuclear and chemical processes? Electromagnetic radiation, etc.

    How would a less atheistic approach to the world determine when God changes things up?

  88. Distant Observer on February 21, 2014 at 4:59 pm

    The statement attributed to Caesar Baronius comes to mind: “The Bible teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” It doesn’t really seem all that difficult to me to differentiate between the correct and expected jurisdiction of the magnificent God of the universe, and some niggling scientific worry that a small-minded and mischievous “tree fairy” version of God will keep messing with their experiments. It is my opinion that the purpose of God is to teach us who we are and the correct morality to be observed among his divine children. I made up a little phrase of my own: “Ethics comes before physics in our universe.” He may choose to bail us out in some situations, like freezing the Mississippi River at a critical time to allow the Saints to escape from Nauvoo, or to heal or restore to life some church members, etc., but his higher purposes don’t seem all that mysterious. I think the gospel tries to convince us that we should spend a lot of time trying to understand the values of God and how we can observe those values ourselves, as fathers, etc. If he can create and manipulate galaxies and universes, I assume he can modify all the physics involved, as needed, but is not some geek who goes around hacking everyones cell phones just for giggles.

  89. mtnmarty on February 21, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    Maybe so but if you are right he’s got one heck of a way of showing it.

    I think the opposite. Our increasing scientific understanding of the universe and ourselves is God revealing his ethics. And apparently so does BYU.

  90. mtnmarty on February 21, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    “Ethics comes before physics in our universe.”

    So the way people should be comes before how they are?

  91. Ben H on February 21, 2014 at 5:40 pm

    Interesting. Well, how to fit what looks like a history of changing forms of life (mostly microbial) for billions of years before humans even show up on the scene with what we tend to envision as a more or less instantaneous, simultaneous resurrection of all humanity (okay, there are two waves, but still . . .) is a deep and mysterious question a lot like the question of why God intervenes miraculously in some human crises and not in others. Seems like a question worth some serious, thoughtful writing by people who understand both!

  92. mtnmarty on February 21, 2014 at 6:46 pm

    Ben H,

    I would be more hopeful about your proposal if we had some new thoughts to go into our writing. Why won’t we just end up with a very artfully described mystery?

    Its a bit like the scientific study of consciousness or of concepts. Why brains cause experiences and how they perceive concepts is such a mystery that we don’t even know where to start.

  93. rah on February 21, 2014 at 8:05 pm

    Also, I think RH doesn’t make an important distinction between what we as professors do to get published and what we teach in the classroom. I teach MBA classes. While my research of necessity must be more narrowly analytic and empirically rigorous in trying to tease out causality (which in the social sciences necessitates very narrow scopes), this is not how I teach MBA or undergraduate students. The classes themselves aren’t concerned with the nitty gritty of theoretical debates or identification strategies, but rather designed to give students a broader, more holistic view of a topic, integrating many, often contradictory points of view. We contrast competing theories, explore hypothetical, apply abstract principles to concrete cases. Is there some serious thinking to do about the growing disconnect between what we do as researchers and what we do as teachers? Certainly. However, there will always be a large degree of decoupling because the task of adding to knowledge and imparting to students knowledge are fundamentally different – especially in empirical fields. I can see how in more philosophy-based fields that this decoupling is not quite so large as it plays fully in world of ideas divorced from empirical reality. It is unclear to me from RH essay that he grasps this distinction at any meaningful level. I feel more like he wants an excuse to diss empirical findings that are inconvenient for his his particular moral and political view. So if some students at the Y are faced with professor’s in empirical fields that refuse to let students reject discussions out of hand because they don’t fit their political ideology that is a good thing. I feel pretty confident that liberal leaning students are probably disabused pretty regularly of sloppy thinking that feel comfortable for them. I would guess this happens with some sort of glee in Prof. Hancock’s own classes. Good for him and good for the student’s growth.

  94. Distant Observer on February 23, 2014 at 11:32 am

    I see that the implications of my earlier posts are not self explanatory, so I need to do some more dot-connecting with other ideas, and then maybe I can let it rest.
    Someone was mildly ridiculing Bob Jones University as an example of a Christian fundamentalist group. What needs to be demonstrated is that almost the entire academic world in the United States is infected with a far more damaging and ridiculous atheist fundamentalist logic. It is worthy of great ridicule by right-thinking people, but it is a rare person who has the knowledge and confidence to do so. Let’s assume that the BYU is following this secular academic model (which I’m going to redefine as an atheist fundamentalist logic), because the secular academic model seems to be receiving the praise of the world, or at least the self-congratulatory praise of all of the people involved in the conspiracy. And it is a very successful conspiracy. We have this constant interplay between phony science and phony philosophy which has ratcheted itself into prominence. But what if some school had the extremely bad taste of showing that “the Emperor has no clothes,” that the entire enterprise is a fraud and a con game, built upon false science. First, that means, as is easily demonstrable, that a large portion of their “science” is complete nonsense, hurting badly the study of real science, free from atheist dogma. If one can show that almost all of the speculative “science” piece of that seesaw is complete balderdash, then it is easier to show that the atheist philosophies built upon that false premise are also unworthy of acceptation. In other words, one way to fix BYU, and get it aimed in the right direction, is to show that the model it is clinging to is not only wrong, but so wrong it is worth mocking. Maybe we just need a few people who either have no career, or who don’t care about their career, to go into jihad/Kamikazi mode and start the process of turning this whole corrupted enterprise inside out. Otherwise, BYU is serving the really terrible purpose of showing that the atheists can control even the Lord’s University. I personally consider that a really awful outcome.
    I am guessing that many of their quantitative studies which they want to use to show their academic prowess and usefulness, are often poorly constructed and incorrectly interpreted, simply because their worldview itself is to constricted.

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