Mormons, education, and intellect

In a previous post, I stated my objections to the portrayal of LDS Church disciplinary councils and procedures in the PBS show, “The Mormons”. I felt the same segment (about the excommunication of the “September Six”) left some misleading impressions regarding the role of education and intellect in the LDS Church — in particular, that the LDS Church somehow devalues, denigrates, or is afraid of education and intellect, or that Mormons who pursue the intellect end up leaving the LDS Church.

Actually, just the opposite is true.

Sociological studies within the United States have typically shown an inverse relationship between level of education achieved and church activity for most major religions — in other words, the higher the educational level, the lower the religious activity.

By contrast, at least one study[1] has shown a dramatically different result for Mormons: the higher the educational level, the greater the religious activity. In other words, Mormons with graduate degrees are more active and faithful (weekly attendance, paying a full tithe, praying daily, studying the scriptures, stating that personal beliefs are important) than those with college degrees, who in turn are more active and faithful than those with just high school degrees or less. (One exception: the authors note their survey showed “that Mormon women who continue their education beyond college graduation do show a slight decline on all our measures of religiosity. Whether this is a function of a secularizing influence of education or other forces is a question that we are unable to address with the data currently available.”) The same article above also demonstrates that Mormons within the US, both males and females, are generally more highly educated than the US population at large. (I was going to post the actual tables here, but WordPress keeps eating my HTML; maybe later.)

This same emphasis on education in underscored by statistics for incoming freshman at Brigham Young University: the average GPA is 3.78 and the average ACT score is 27.8 (see here), which places them at or above the 90th percentile for college-bound high-school graduates (cf. here).

BYU — The cultural and intellectual center of the Mormon Church, where professors who have sacrificed salary and tenure teach students who are there to get married. — Orson Scott Card, Saintspeak: A Mormon Dictionary (1984)

Now let’s look at the top leadership of the LDS Church, viz., the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve (information taken from [2]):

  • Gordon B. Hinkley (President): BA in English, University of Utah, 1932.
  • Thomas S. Monson (1st Counselor): BA in Business Management, University of Utah; MA in Business Management, BYU.
  • James E. Faust (2nd Counselor): BA, JD from University of Utah, 1948.
  • Boyd K. Packer (Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve): BA, MA from Utah State University; PhD in Educational Administration, BYU.
  • L. Tom Perry: BS in Finance, Utah State University.
  • Russell M. Nelson: BA, MD from University of Utah; PhD from University of Minnesota (was a practicing heart surgeon).
  • Dallin H. Oaks: BA in Accounting, BYU; JD (cum laude), University of Chicago (clerked for US Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren; served as President of BYU; served as Utah Supreme Court Justice).
  • M. Russell Ballard: attended University of Utah.
  • Joseph B. Wirthlin: BA in Business Management, University of Utah.
  • Richard G. Scott: BS in Mechanical Engineering from George Washington; post-graduate nuclear engineering studies at Oak Ridge, TN (worked on staff of Adm. Hyman Rickover).
  • Robert D. Hales: BA, University of Utah; MA in Business Administration from Harvard.
  • Jeffrey R. Holland: BA in English, MA in Religious Education from BYU; MA and PhD in American Studies from Yale (served as President of BYU for nine years).
  • Henry B. Eyring: BS in Physics from University of Utah; MA, PhD from Harvard (served as President of Ricks College for seven years).
  • Dieter F. Uchtdorf: studies in engineering, business administration and international management (in Germany) (was VP of Flight Operations and Chief Pilot for Lufthansa Airlines).
  • David A. Bednar: BA in Communications, MA in Organizational Communications from BYU; PhD in Organizational Behavior from Purdue (served as President of BYU-Idaho [formerly Ricks College]).

Out of these fifteen men, almost all have college degrees; nine have graduate degrees; five have PhDs; three have graduate degrees from Yale or Harvard. Two have law degrees (and were practicing lawyers). Four served as college or university presidents. Three have technical or scientific backgrounds; one of those has a medical degree (as well as a PhD), was a practicing heart surgeon, and served as Chairman for the Council on Cardiovascular Surgery for the American Heart Association.

I would frankly be interested to see if anyone else can find another worldwide organization led by 15 people with such academic and professional credentials. And were I to start getting into the educational and professional experience of the remaining full-time leadership of the LDS Church (Presidency of the Seventy (7 individuals), First Quorum of the Seventy (41), Second Quorum of the Seventy (28), Presiding Bishopric (3)), you would find the same trend. In fact, as far as I can tell, the education and professional backgrounds of the top LDS Church leadership are, by most independent standards, at least equivalent and generally superior to those of the September Six.

In short, to attempt to characterize the LDS Church as being inherently against education or intellect goes against the actual facts.

Fundamentalist — 1. In the world, someone who believes that the words of dead prophets, as recorded in the Bible, are all the word of God that mankind will ever need. Some Mormons occasionally get confused and think we have something in common with Christian Fundamentalists…. — Orson Scott Card, Saintspeak

On the other hand, honesty compels me to admit that there has been an anti-intellectual current in a subset of LDS Church leadership and membership during the latter half of the 20th Century, though it is (in my opinion) definitely on the wane, with its roots in the 1920s and 30s. Back then, on the scientific side in the Quorum of the Twelve were Elders James E. Talmage (who had studied chemistry and geology), John A. Widstoe (who had a PhD in chemistry), and Joseph F. Merrill (who had a PhD in physics), as well as B. H. Roberts (not an Apostle, but a very influential member of the First Council of the Seventy); on the other side was a younger Apostle, Joseph Fielding Smith, who (unlike the others) was very much a creationist as that term is generally used today (young earth, no evolution, special creation), who served both as a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and then as the 10th President of the LDS Church; and later on his son-in-law, Bruce R. McConkie, who ultimately became a member of the Quorum of the Twelve as well. Both Smith and McConkie wrote unauthorized, unapproved but highly influential doctrinal works (Man: His Origin and Destiny and Mormon Doctrine, respectively). (See pp. 45-53 in [3] for contemporaneous documentation of the issues surrounding these books; also see pp. 176-186 in [4].)

Talmage, Widstoe, Merrill and Roberts were all dead by the time Smith brought out Man: His Origin and Destiny (1954), and Smith (and later McConkie) ended up having significant influence on LDS Church religious educational materials. When I arrived at BYU in 1971 as a microbiology major, my faculty advisor, Dr. Duane Jeffery, expressed his ongoing frustration with efforts by “a few people” in LDS Church headquarters who actively preached against evolution and accepted geology, in spite of a statement by an early LDS Church Presidency (under Heber J. Grant) in 1931 that the church should “[l]eave Geology, Biology, Archaeology and Anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church.” (p. 67 in [5].)

My personal observation is that the neoliteral creationist viewpoint (to use Paul’s phrase; see [4]) is fading from the LDS Church in general, though it lingers in LDS Sunday School and Institute (college) materials. A year or two ago, when the “teaching creationism” issue was getting major play in the media, someone (it may have been Pat Bagley, the LDS cartoonist) quipped that “the only place where creationism is taught at BYU is in the Religion department.” It certainly is not taught in any of the science departments, nor was it taught 36 years ago, when I was an undergrad microbiology student.

I am not in a position to judge any of the specific issues raised at the disciplinary councils for the September Six, simply because I did not attend and the LDS Church has released no information as to what has gone on. My personal prayer is that the individuals involved can fine the peace they seek, in or out of the LDS Church. On the other hand, I have personally known enough self-professed “Mormon intellectuals” to appreciate the classic definition of such: “Someone who does what the Prophet [or, in some cases, God] would do if he [or He] had all the facts.”

In all my decades of study, reading, and pondering in a variety of disciplines, I have become only more convinced of my own ignorance and more reliant upon the Lord to guide me through the pitfalls of life. Furthermore, in my 40 years of LDS Church membership, including as both a student and an instructor at BYU, I have never felt particularly constrained in exercising my intellect. On the contrary: I find LDS theology and doctrine to be far more intellectually expansive and logically consistent than most other Christian theology, particularly when it comes to the “terrible questions” (to use Hugh Nibley’s phrase): Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? What happens after I die?

“But in this [the LDS] Church you don’t have to believe anything that isn’t true. You go over to the University of Arizona and learn everything you can, and whatever is true is part of the gospel. The Lord is actually running this universe.” Advice of Edward Eyring to his son Henry Eyring; Henry Eyring went on to become a world-famous chemist while remaining a faithful and believing Latter-day Saint; his son, Henry B. Eyring, is currently a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. See [6], pp. 6-8. Note from the link I just gave that Dr. Eyring likewise engaged Elder Joseph Fielding Smith on these issues.

That advice sums my attitude towards intellect, searching and truth, and I believe it is generally reflected throughout the LDS Church. I feel liberated, not constrained, both intellectually and spiritually — remembering, however, that I am neither free to make up what I want to be true (a weakness of many ‘liberal’ religions) nor compelled to profess what appears to be clearly contradicted by available evidence (a challenge to many ‘fundamentalist’ religions).

However, in all this I also keep in mind that I worship a God Who created this space-time continuum (and thus exists outside of it); Who comprehends its entirety — not just moment to moment, but throughout its entire existence; and Who is farther above me in intellect, perfection and power than I am above the simplest virus. Given that, it would be foolish of me indeed to decide a priori what God could or could not do, including in creating and populating this particular world we live upon. That, to me, is my fundamental caution in weighing in on the science/creationist debate or, for that matter, any other doctrinal or theological debate. Folks on both sides tend to state definitively what God could or could not have done, which strikes me as somewhat presumptive and not at all useful. As Pres. Grant said, as a Church we are best off leaving science to those of us choosing to do scientific research and to focus on serving and blessing those around us as the Lord directs us. ..bruce..

Mormons — People who believe: … 3. That the only difference between them and God is a few years of training. — Orson Scott Card, Saintspeak (1984).

[1] Albrecht, Stan L. and Tim B. Heaton. “Secularization, higher education, and religiosity.” Published in Review of Religious Research, 26:43-58; reprinted in Latter-day Saint Social Life: Social Research on the LDS Church and Its Members (James T. Duke, ed.), Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT, 1998, pp. 293-314.

[2] 2006 Church Almanac, Deseret News, 2006, pp. 22-27.

[3] Prince, Gregory A. and Wm. Robert Wright. David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City, UT, 2005.

[4] Paul, Erich Robert. Science, Religion, and Mormon Cosmology. University of Illinois Press, Urbana, IL, 1992.

[5] Evenson, William E. and Duane E. Jeffrey. Mormonism and Evolution: The Authoritative LDS Statements. Greg Kofford Books, Salt Lake City, UT, 2003.

[6] Eyring, Henry. Reflections of a Scientist. Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, UT, 1983.

11 thoughts on “Mormons, education, and intellect

  1. Pingback: University Update
  2. The Jewish religion is very strong on education. A very large number of professionals are jews. Doctors, scientists, dentists, lawyers, etc.
    The majority of professionals aren’t Mormons, but Jewish!! Often, in retirement, they become Rabbis.

    The list of Jewish nobel prize laureates in biomedical, chemistry, physics, economics, and literature is immense! Where are the “academic and professional credentialed” Mormon high achievers hiding?

  3. The first part of your comment is a bit of a non sequitur; Jewish emphasis on education has no real bearing on LDS emphasis on education, one way or the other. My post made no comparison with the intellectual achievements of members of other faiths; it merely noted that (a) US Mormons are better educated than the general US population, and (b) unlike other major faiths, Mormons tend to be more faithful when they have had more education.

    Your next statement would required some documentation; while I would frankly expect to find that Jews are overrepresented in the professions you cite, I would be surprised to find that they form “the majority” (i.e., >50%) of those professions. Still, there is no question at all about profound Jewish overrepresentation in Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes.

    Mormons are likewise overrepresented in certain fields (though, sadly, Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes are not among them). For example, according to the sources cited and conclusions reached in this article, Utah has led the nation in per-capita production of scientists for 60 years. This posting likewise states that “Latter-day Saints have more professionals and managers than Catholics or Protestants but fewer than Jews or ‘others.'” And again, “By the 1990s Mormons in Canada tended to be overrepresented at the entrepreneurial, management, and professional levels and under-represented in unionized occupations and union leadership.”

    On the other hand, I don’t believe I said anything about Mormons being ‘high achievers’, though you might check out the CEOs/CFOs in The Mormon Way of Doing Business. Likewise, while I was living in the Washington DC area, I became personally acquainted with Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Sen. Robert Bennett (R-UT), Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR), and Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV), as well as with Bill Marriott (CEO of Marriott International) and his son David.

    Still, I suspect Mormons tend not to be overachievers because of the strong emphasis on (and demands of) family and church; it was an LDS prophet, David O. McKay, who famously said “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” A far more detailed look into why Latter-day Saints tend not to be professional ‘high achievers’ can be found in this article.

    Finally, while Jewish identity tends to derive from genealogy and culture — that is, people tend to be born Jewish and consider themselves as such, regardless of their adherence to Jewish religious law and tradition — Mormon identity tends to be self-selecting, either through conversion or persistent involvement in the LDS Church into adulthood. This means that the LDS Church tends to be more diverse — racially, ethnically, and culturally — than the Jewish population at large.

    In other words, how would you know a Mormon if you saw one? ..bruce..

  4. Pingback: Quora

Leave a Reply