This piece is part of an ongoing series about discrimination and how to prevent it.
Though the founding of the University of Utah is closely tied to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, moments of tension have developed between the two institutions over the U’s nearly 200-year history. Some of the challenges that exist are unique to Utah and its predominant faith, while others can be found at the intersections of various other secular and religious institutions. You can read more about the U’s history and relationship with the LDS Church here.
To provide a perspective on what anti-religious, and specifically anti-Mormon bias, can look like in academic settings, Patrick Mason, the Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture and the director of the Religious Studies Program at Utah State University, answered a few questions.
How would you describe the type of anti-Mormon bias or sentiment someone may experience in the academic world?
It can be very individualized based on circumstances. I am happy to say I’ve never encountered any explicit anti-Mormon bias during my career, though I have at other times and places in my life. My colleagues have been welcoming. They recognize that the work I do professionally meets the same standards as their work within the field. If anything, there’s been openness and oftentimes curiosity about some of my personal beliefs.
But I have heard from other friends and colleagues who have encountered some kind of bias because of their personal commitment to Mormonism. For instance, because Latter-day Saints don’t typically drink they sometimes can be left out of certain social settings or gatherings where the community is built and work is informally done. Sometimes bias can be more intellectual—for instance, with the idea that if you really believe in things like gold plates and resurrection and angels, that somehow marks you as a less serious or intellectually rigorous person.
It seems like anyone who is religious and does research that intersects with their faith may encounter people who doubt their ability to do that research in an unbiased way. What are your observations?
Over the past several decades, there have been a number of studies that show how the American academy has become increasingly secular. The number of people in the professoriate who personally adhere to various religious traditions has dropped over the years. This is especially true within fields such as the biological and physical sciences, humanities, social sciences, arts, education, and social work. Many of these fields have in recent decades tended to attract people who are more liberal or progressive in their political views. Sometimes those ideologies can be at odds with people who come from more traditional or conservative religious backgrounds like Mormonism.
At the same time, it’s important to recognize there are plenty of liberal and progressive members of traditionally conservative religions—whether it be Mormonism, Catholicism, Islam, or others. Sometimes it’s less about explicit bias or prejudice toward a particular group, but rather an assumption that everybody within that group is the same. So if the religion’s institutional authorities make certain pronouncements or teach certain things or take positions on certain political issues, sometimes there’s an assumption that everybody in the pews fully agrees—even though of course we know this is not true for other groups. You can’t just assume you know everything you need to know about a person or what they think just because they’re a member of a particular group.
Religion isn’t the only personal belief or bias a researcher may have to be aware of to do their work well. In academia, what are practices for how that is reckoned with?
In academia, we have disciplines, which are ways that we discipline our thinking. It’s not that your personal experience doesn’t matter at all. Of course, everybody brings who they are into their research and into their scholarship. There’s no such thing as pure objectivity. But we have these disciplines—in my case history—and through this, I’ve learned how to discipline my thinking. I’ve been very highly trained. I’ve spent a lot of years training to discipline the way that I research and write and teach, based on the conventions within my chosen field. This would be true for a biologist, sociologist, musicologist, or anybody else.
Of course, we’re personally interested in people’s backgrounds and the other things that they bring to the table. The academy should be a place, at its best, where we can meet in a kind of neutral space, whoever we are or wherever we come from. Within that space, there are a set of intellectual and professional conventions, standards, and criteria that everybody can adhere to regardless of their personal backgrounds. That approach helps eliminate certain kinds of personal biases or prejudices because we focus on evaluating the work and not necessarily what somebody does or thinks when they go home at night.
I realize this vision is idealistic in a way. There are very real power imbalances and historic inequities that need to be factored in. We need to be proactive in including voices and perspectives that have traditionally not been heard. But I suppose I’m a bit old-fashioned in believing that universities can and should model a kind of space for genuine dialogue and exploration of ideas that simply isn’t happening in most other sectors of society.
Beyond just the context of Mormonism, what can be done by members of the academic community to be more open-minded about the various religious and spiritual backgrounds their colleagues may come from?
I think the most important thing is simply curiosity—just being curious about somebody else as a human being, with all that entails. As I said, in my career, I’ve never experienced any outright hostility based on my religious beliefs, but it seems apparent to me that some of my colleagues who are more secular don’t always have the language to know how to talk with me about religion—especially my religion. Frankly, maybe it’s just a topic that they’re not all that interested in, which is fine. But oftentimes I sense a kind of awkwardness—they don’t know how to talk about it, for fear of offending me. They’re not quite sure how to ask questions about either what I believe or how I reconcile that with my work as a scholar within the secular academy.
I think most people of faith would welcome questions from others who are just genuinely curious about their colleagues’ and friends’ lives—invitations such as, “Tell me more about yourself,” “Tell me more about your background,” or “Tell me more about the path that got you to where you are today.” This communicates that I really respect you as a colleague, I respect your work, and I want to get to know you as a full human being too. That’s the same way that I would engage with my colleagues from any number of different backgrounds. A university is a place that brings together humanity in all its diversity, so we shouldn’t be afraid to explore that diversity, even (or especially) if it takes us into truly unfamiliar places.
In a lot of ways, religion is no different than other markers of diversity. I believe we can break down a lot of barriers or misunderstandings simply through curiosity, genuine conversations, and seeing people as whole people.
As a professor, you interact with many Utah college students. What have you heard from them about their experiences?
I’ve heard students of faith at Utah State University and the University of Utah say they are sitting in classrooms where at least their perception of the faculty is that they are hostile to either the particulars of their faith or faith in general. Oftentimes, it revolves around more social and political and cultural issues, such as LGBTQ equality and things like that, but sometimes it’s just simply, at least in the student’s perception, a kind of hostility toward religion broadly speaking. This might take the form (in the student’s mind) of faculty members deriding religion as irrational, unenlightened, and so forth.
Now, sometimes students can be a little overly sensitive. At times they might genuinely misunderstand what their professor actually said. Professors have a job of presenting multiple viewpoints in the classroom, and sometimes students have a hard time hearing those things especially if it’s a view that’s entirely new to them or challenges their worldview. It’s very complicated.
As an example, every year I teach a course on Mormon history. This is a course about my own tradition—a religion I was born into and remain deeply committed to. I assign readings and say things in that course that I know are challenging to the beliefs of many of the students in my classroom who are themselves Latter-day Saints. Other times it’s my more secular students whose prior assumptions are challenged. But it’s my job to teach the history. It’s my job to teach it as objectively as I can, in a way that is faithful to the evidence and to the scholarship as it has developed over many decades. I’ve had students who wonder if I’m personally “anti-Mormon.” And so as a faculty member, I recognize that something nefarious is not necessarily going on in the classroom when students’ beliefs are challenged. Most of the time faculty are just doing their jobs, providing opportunities for intellectual growth for their students. And students are free to disagree with their professors! (Frankly, we’re not as influential as we sometimes wish or are made out to be.)
At the same time, I do believe that faculty members should be just as sensitive to religious diversity issues as they are to race, gender and sexuality, national and ethnic background, and other forms of diversity. Places like the University of Utah and Utah State University are research universities that draw faculty from around the country and around the world. So even while the students are largely from Utah, which means a lot of them are from the predominant religion, the faculty by and large have not been in an environment like Utah before. There’s a learning curve for them as they experience this new culture. The vast majority of faculty I’ve interacted with are good people. They’re smart people, they’re sensitive people. They care about all kinds of diversity. So perhaps students and faculty can just give each other a little bit of grace and even allow each other to make mistakes sometimes.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
With groups like the Heterodox Academy, there is a lot of talk right now about ideological diversity and political diversity within higher education. We know that the academy skews liberal, especially in certain fields. Students and faculty who affiliate with more conservative churches, including the LDS Church, do sometimes hold different views, for instance around issues related to gender or marriage or sexuality, than many of their more liberal or progressive peers. Many of them feel like they can’t always share their thoughts and be open about what they believe and why. But these are really intelligent people. Among the faculty, these are people who have earned Ph.D.s. Trust me, they’ve thought through these issues; they know the arguments on both sides. It’s not like they’re naive about these things. But sometimes they feel like they can’t be their whole selves because of the way the academy skews politically, socially, and culturally.
We have to recognize that there are some fundamental tensions within some of the values we hold within the academy. We want to be inclusive, but inclusivity is sometimes challenged by the realities of diversity in all its forms. Are we inclusive of multiple viewpoints and experiences, or just certain ones that have been deemed acceptable at any given moment? I believe we need to do a better job of talking honestly about all of this. One reason the American academy is great is that traditionally it has been a place where all ideas can be discussed, debated, tested, and brought out into the open. To the degree we are not doing that, we are just hurting ourselves.