Event #2: Brigham Young University Backfires

I have no doubt that numerous mini-events at BYU were, in combination, the greatest force in directing me toward eventually leaving the church. One such event was my first exposure to controversy surrounding evolution in my biology class. I had grown up believing that evolution was a satanic fantasy. But to BYU’s credit, in my biology class I encountered the first evidence that natural selection had occurred and was occurring pretty much the way Darwin described. Having been exposed to the facts of evolution, within a few months I quickly became aware of several uncomfortable facts. For example, while the church itself has recently been quiet about evolution, many general authorities and some prophets have not, and the great majority of things general authorities have said about evolution have been against it. On my mission I had come to terms with the fact that general authorities are not perfect in their conduct; at BYU I had to come to terms with the fact that general authorities are not perfect in their teachings. (Later I had to grapple with not only what general authorities had said about evolution, but also what they had said about interracial marriage, birth control, the sexual practices of married couples, and other topics.)

Just as important, at BYU I had to confront the fact that most BYU students I spoke to about evolution held strongly anti-evolutionary views and were uninterested in any evidence that might support evolution. My BYU professors had taught me that Mormonism encompassed truths from all sources and that the pursuit of knowledge was a sacred effort. Now I had to cope with the knowledge that many of the people who testified in testimony meetings that they “knew” the church was true just as surely “knew” that evolution was a lie. The testimonies of my peers, which at one time affirmed and strengthened my own testimony, had lost some of their credibility. Just how serious was the average BYU student about pursuing truth anyway? And if this was the way smart Mormons evaluated scientific evidence, could they really be trusted to fairly evaluate religious evidence?

My respect toward scientific evidence and epistemology (which aligned me with some of my Mormon professors, but against some of my peers) is just one of many things that helped me feel like a different breed of Mormon at that time. The critical thinking I was using in the classroom stayed alive on Sunday mornings, and I found myself wondering why my peers seemed to have so few tough questions about what they were hearing in church. (In retrospect I realize that many of my peers probably did struggle with some of what they were hearing in church, but the culture among BYU students was often one in which students competed with each other in righteousness. Even a few skeptical questions made in public carried the real risk of harming one’s marriage and other social prospects.) Fortunately, I married a faithful Latter-day Saint who practiced her religion with tact and subtlety. She saw nothing wrong with asking tough questions as long as God himself was among those asked.

In a strange coincidence, my pursuit of research experience (to prepare me for graduate school) brought me into contact with a professor who felt even less attached to the dominant culture at BYU than I did. (He left BYU shortly after I graduated.) His primary gripe seemed to be with the climate of censorship (and self-censorship) that prevailed at BYU, but we both knew that BYU inherited its climate from the church that owned it. Obvious to both of us was the “love it or leave it” attitude of the “establishment” on campus—criticism was discouraged to a degree not typical of other universities, perhaps because one could not criticize BYU too much without also maligning the church. Neither one of us had much tolerance for being part of an organization with such a defensive posture toward negative feedback. I thus grew to think of myself as a “liberal Mormon” who believed the core doctrines of the church but was not afraid to privately criticize policies and peripheral doctrines that seemed misguided. But I was still reading scriptures and praying daily at that time.

I graduated from BYU glad to be free of its culture of uniformity under pressure, and felt comfortable with my “liberal Mormonism” because it allowed me to keep my temple recommend without surrendering too much of my integrity. I wondered if some day I would have to choose between the freedom to ask and discuss tough questions about Mormonism and the freedom to remain an active member of the church, but I doubted I would ever have to give up one to have the other.

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