Education, Scholarship, and Mormonism

Scott Gordon

Education, Scholarship, and Mormonism

Disaffected Mormons and secular critics of the LDS Church maintain several Web sites, frequent Internet message boards, and have written several books about Mormonism. They tend to look for naturalistic explanations for religious events and promote arguments such as the Book of Mormon must have been copied from an unknown writer; Joseph Smith must have conspired with, tricked, or secretly hypnotized the witnesses; and the spiritual manifestations at the Kirtland Temple were influenced by liquor that they presume must have been there. They tend to see things in limited naturalistic terms, not allowing for the possibility of the divine or supernatural.

When I have spoken with some of these individuals, I have heard the opinion expressed that they are rational thinkers, with the implication that active LDS are not. They often express that they are intellectual, open-minded, enlightened and (once they’ve left the Church) are “free” from dogma, again with the implication that active LDS are not.

Additionally, there seems to be the belief that the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to be religious. In other words, the more that individuals focus on scholarship, the more they will leave the LDS Church. Some of the more polemic of this group have used derogatory terms to describe the LDS, such as “the Morg” (a combination of Mormon and Borg, from the Star Trek: The Next Generation television series), “the collective,” and “mind-numbed robots.”1

LDS Education Levels

When talking with critics, one gets the impression that the LDS must be a group of uneducated dupes. This belief, however, is not supported by available data. The LDS emphasis on education has led to higher education levels among LDS than in the US population in general. The percentage of LDS who have completed post-secondary education is significantly higher than it is for the US population in general.2 As can be seen in Chart 1, 53.5% of LDS males have a post-high school education, compared to 36.5% of the US, while 44.3% of LDS females have a post-high school education, compared to 27.7% of the US population in general. Both male and female LDS have completed on average more years of school than the non-LDS population3 (Chart 2), and statistics from Canada show these same trends4 (Chart 3).

Chart 1.

Chart 2.

Chart 3.

Higher levels of education among LDS members falls in line with the LDS culture of learning and with the scriptural admonitions we should “seek learning.

And as all have not faith, seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith. Organize yourselves; prepare every needful thing; and establish a house, even a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God;5

And set in order the churches, and study and learn, and become acquainted with all good books, and with languages, tongues, and people.6

Religosity and Education

Even more interesting is looking at the second part of the skeptics’ assertions that higher levels of education lead to less religious observance. Contrary to that expectation, exactly the opposite occurs among the LDS population. With higher levels of education come higher levels of Church activity, as illustrated in Chart 4. The correlation is startling, with Church attendance rates reaching 70 to 80 percent of those with sixteen years (or more) of education.7

Chart 4.

Scholarship and Mormon Scholars

Some critics have gone so far as to claim either inferior scholarship or a purposeful deception on the part of LDS scholars. One critic on a well-known Internet message board frequented by ex-Mormon dissidents claimed that a noted historian (who happens to be LDS) “spews garbage” and that he is a “puppet” of the LDS Church. Another critic on the FAIR message boards claimed “They are, in effect, propagandists.” They raise the question of whether scholars cease to be scholars when they are LDS.

Dr. Daniel Peterson illustrated the absurdity of such claims by responding to one critic, “When, exactly, did (say) Richard Bushman lose his credibility as a historian? Was it prior to his winning the Bancroft Prize? Did it occur while he held his endowed chair in American history at Columbia University? Was it after his retirement, during his stint as a research fellow at Princeton? Or has it occurred only recently, after Columbia University Press published a collection of his LDS-related essays entitled Believing History?”8

One of the most extreme examples of claiming LDS scholars aren’t honest comes from a new anti-Mormon video that was released by Living Hope Ministries titled The Bible vs. The Book of Mormon. In this video, they play a snippet from a FARMS video, and then bring on Dr. Tom Murphy who announces, “Well Dan Peterson is lying!” In case you are wondering, he wasn’t; the snippet was taken out of context.

Many of the attacks on LDS scholarship seem to center around the DNA and the Book of Mormon controversy. When Dr. Tom Murphy, a social anthropologist, and Dr. Simon Southerton, a plant geneticist, claimed that DNA proved the Book of Mormon to be false, several world-renowned scientists (who happen to be LDS) weighed in on the issue. These included Dr. Scott Woodward, Dr. Michael Whiting, Dr. Keith Crandall, Dr. Ryan Parr and Dr. John Butler. Their various responses have been published by FARMS9 and by FAIR10.

The response from many critics has been to claim the LDS respondents are not “real scholars” and they are “regarded by real scientists and scholars with amusement if not downright contempt.”11 This, despite the fact that several of these scientists have gained national recognition in their respective fields. Dr. Ryan Parr has done many mitochondrial DNA studies of Native Americans–exactly the area in question. Dr. Butler had a leading role in identifying remains from the World Trade Center bombings. His specialty is forensic identification using DNA. (His textbook on the subject won an award from the British Medical Association in 2001, and he was granted a Presidential Early Career Award in 2002.)

More could be written on each of these men. Every one of them are internationally respected men of scholarship who have published in respected journals in their fields. None of them agree with the conclusions of Southerton and Murphy.

Contrary to anti-Mormon claims, Mormons seem to have a lot of respected scientists. Dr. Richard T. Wootton, Author of Saints and Scientists: A Quest for Science Religion Harmony, has studied Utah scientists and the impact of their LDS beliefs.12 He notes the following:

(1) Utah is the top state in per capita scientist production and has been for over sixty years; 13

(2) In Utah the Mormon population produces more scientists than does the non-Mormon, proportionate to their numbers in Utah;

(3) Mormon scientists assert, overwhelmingly, that they are “strong” or “very strong” believers in key beliefs of Mormonism.14 Chart 5 shows the percentage of LDS scientists who believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet.

Chart 5.

As in the other studies of education and church attendance, 88% of the LDS Scientists (94 out of 107) say they are active in church.15

Whether Active In Church, By Denomination
Active LDS None Catholic Methodist Orthodox Baptist Lutheran Others Total
No 13 19 1 3 1 7 44
Yes 94 1 3 1 3 1 6 109
Total 107 20 1 6 1 4 1 13 153

Brigham Young University

Brigham Young University (BYU), which is owned by the LDS Church, is often the target of negative comments from dissident and secular critics. It is not uncommon to hear that BYU is not held in high academic regard and that its students receive an inferior education. Yet such criticisms are unfounded. Consider a small sampling of the honors received by BYU in comparison with other educational institutions:

  • A 2003 national survey ranks BYU at the 90th percentile for academic challenge, among other things.16
  • U.S. News and World Report ranked BYU in its 2004 “America’s Best Colleges” issue, in the second tier (67th) in the category of “Best National Universities,” 16th in the “Great Schools at Great Prices” among national universities with doctoral programs.17
  • BYU’s Marriott School of Management was ranked 39th in the nation in US News and World Report and 26th in The Wall Street Journal’s 2003 ranking of top business schools worldwide.18
  • BYU’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, ranked 34th among the top 50 law schools in US News and World Report’s “Best Graduate Schools” 2005, and the College of Nursing ranked 58th.19
  • In 2002, The Chronicle of Higher Education recognized BYU as the best university in the nation at turning research dollars into inventions and new companies.20
  • In 2004, BYU was listed in the top 20 of colleges with the most freshmen Merit Scholars ahead of other well known universities such as UCLA, Duke, Ohio State, Purdue and UC Berkeley.21

There are many other areas where BYU is nationally and internationally recognized and highly ranked. More than eighty BYU graduates have served as presidents of other well-known colleges and universities.22 Those that claim that BYU is somehow not scholarly are either woefully misinformed or blinded by their own religious bigotry.

Foundation For Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS)

FARMS is a publishing imprint of the Institute for the Study and Preservation of Ancient Religious Texts (ISPART) and a part of Brigham Young University. FARMS is well known to most anti-Mormons because one of FARMS’ publications, the FARMS Review, frequently publishes critical reviews of anti-Mormon books. Because of this single publication (one of many under the FARMS imprint), the organization frequently comes under criticism–again from critics of the LDS Church–with claims of “lack of scholarship” and “lack of respect in the scholarly community.”

Once again, this seems to only be wishful thinking on the part of the critics, as FARMS and ISPART have scholarly partnerships with the following organizations, among others:23

  • The Dead Sea Scrolls Foundation
  • The Vatican Apostolic Library
  • The Israel Antiquities Authority
  • The National Library of Naples
  • The Society of Biblical Literature
  • The Martin-Buber-Institut für Judaistik in Cologne, Germany
  • The American Center for Oriental Research, in Amman, Jordan
  • The Smithsonian Institution
  • The J. Paul Getty Museum
  • The Newberry Library
  • The Library of Congress
  • The Pontifical Oriental Institute
  • The Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science

Additionally, work that has been done by FARMS has been recognized by other institutions and by several governments. There have been more than 300 scholars, from many disciplines, write for FARMS. These scholars are recognized and have published in scholarly journals. Claims to the contrary are simply an effort by critics to “poison the well” so others will not pay heed to FARMS. It is easier to discredit or simply dismiss the scholars than to deal with their scholarship which generally refutes the critics’ claims.


The claim that the LDS are not educated or that we are simply “uneducated dupes” is demonstrably false and may reflect an underlying bigotry. Additionally, as education levels rise, so does activity in the LDS Church. The LDS Church promotes learning in all areas. In most cases, the other criticisms against LDS scholars and LDS scholarship are not valid and are simply attempts to “poison the well.”


1 All terms personally seen by the author on Internet message boards.

2 Stan L. Albrecht and Tim B. Heaton, “Secularization, Higher Education, and Religiosity,” Latter-Day Saint Social Life, Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1998), 302.

3 James T. Duke, “Cultural Continuity and Tension: A Test of Stark’s Theory of Church Growth.” Latter-Day Saint Social Life, Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1998), 94.

4 James T. Duke, “Cultural Continuity and Tension: A Test of Stark’s Theory of Church Growth.” Latter-Day Saint Social Life, Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1998), 98.

5 D&C 88:118-119.

6 D&C 90:15.

7 Stan L. Albrecht, “The Consequential Dimension of Mormon Religiosity” Latter-Day Saint Social Life, Social Research on the LDS Church and its Members, (Provo, Utah: BYU Religious Studies Center, 1998), 286.

8 Dr. Peterson is a BYU professor if Islamic studies. This quote was posted by Dr. Peterson on the FAIR message boards January 28, 2004.

9 To read these FARMS publications go to

10 To read these FAIR publications go to

11 Daniel Peterson, FAIR message boards, November 13, 2004.

12 (accessed November 28, 2005)

13 Duwayne Anderson is the author of an anti-Mormon book on this subject titled Farewell to Eden: Coming to Terms With Mormonism and Science. (He has a Bachelors degree in Physics from Brigham Young University.) He strongly disagrees with Dr. Wootton’s conclusions using such terms as “baseless” and “gross exaggerations.” Dr. Wootton’s response, posted on the same anti-Mormon Web site as Mr. Anderson’s comments, points out that Dr Wootton’s results have been verified by other studies and peer reviewed where Mr. Anderson’s theory has not. Simply put, Mr. Anderson’s theory “is not correct.” (See

14 (accessed November 28, 2005)

15 Ibid

16 (accessed November 26, 2004).

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Ibid.

20 (accessed November 26, 2004).

21 The Chronicle of Higher Education Volume LII, Number 1, August 26, 2005, page 14.

22 (accessed November 26, 2004).

23 Information supplied by Dr. Daniel Peterson, past Chairman of the board of ISPART/FARMS.

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