Secularism and Religious Education: Introduction

By March 29, 2010

This strikes me as an especially pregnant time in the intellectual history of Mormonism. Mormon Studies is emerging as a solid field. Students are pursuing Mormon-themed scholarship, tracing intersections among fields with a well-established history, such as literature, history, and biblical studies, and exploring nascent fields such as theology. What is most interesting to me about Mormon Studies is the existence of a community of students gaining similar methodological tools for the study of religion in similar educational environments.

Many of the students involved in Mormon Studies primarily or peripherally are receiving graduate degrees in religion at divinity schools and universities throughout the U.S. and in Europe. Some of these students are BYU graduates; some of them are not. Many of them have been through the mill of CES, but not all of them are planning to pursue teaching through Church-education channels. These young men and women are at non-Mormon educational institutions where they receive non-Mormon academic training in religion.[1]

Religious education outside of CES baffles some Latter-day Saints. Students who seek such education draw raised eyebrows and confront well-meaning questions or concerns about their ability to remain faithful to Mormonism while receiving their academic religious training. The Church strives against the fear of secularism and false doctrine infiltrating the fold. Since coming to divinity school, I have discovered two warring worldviews within myself?the secular worldview that sees the world without a lens of divine influence and inspiration and the Mormon worldview that sees with it.[2] Outside of Mormonism, religious education in the academy (a secular institution) is also contested, as revealed by a Newsweek article titled ?Harvard?s Crisis of Faith,? written by Lisa Miller.[3]

Knowing only my own divinity school experience, I wanted to hear what some of the Mormon scholars described above had to say about the question of secularism and religious education in the academy. What have their experiences been? Is secularism necessarily a bad thing? And what role, if any, should religious education play in the academy?  The first respondent in the miniseries is Harvard divinity student Taylor P., who specifically addresses the Newsweek article. Taylor will be followed by JI?s own Ben, Ryan, and Matt, who will post at intervals for the next couple of weeks.

[1] This is not without precedent, certainly. Divinity-school-trained church educators grew from Church education?s call to certain Mormon scholars during the 1930s to pursue graduate degrees in religious education at the University of Chicago Divinity School (see Russel B. Swensen, ?Mormons at the University of Chicago Divinity School: A Personal Reminiscence? Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 7, no. 2 [Summer 1972], 37).

[2] Divinity school did not solely impart this secular worldview to me, although I have encountered a fair amount of secularism, which has challenged my faith. However, I attribute my secularism to elements of my American enculturation. Divinity school has actually planted the religious worldview even more deeply within me.

[3] February 10, 2010.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Excellent, Liz. Thanks for organizing this, and I look forward to the several contributions.

    Comment by Christopher — March 29, 2010 @ 12:22 pm

  2. Ditto.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — March 29, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

  3. Looking forward to this.

    Comment by Jared T. — March 29, 2010 @ 10:02 pm

  4. Re footnote 1, I am also reminded of what has been described as the second generation of LDS religious education/divinity school students.

    Comment by Justin — March 30, 2010 @ 10:35 am

  5. .

    Will there be a tag or something one could use to find all these posts at once?

    Comment by Th. — March 30, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

  6. Thank you, Justin. I hadn’t read the Sunstone article. Th., I will see about tagging. Nice idea.

    Comment by Elizabeth — March 30, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

  7. […] posts during her tenure, and more recently launched two of JI’s more successful series—Secularism and Religious Education, exploring the ways different Mormon students at Divinity Schools have grappled with secularism and […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Farewell, Elizabeth — June 16, 2010 @ 9:10 pm


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