Friday, April 26, 2013

Brigham Young University discriminates against Latter-day Saints

An open letter to the Brigham Young University Honor Code Office.

One can only assume the best of intentions. The desire to make Brigham Young University (BYU) a safe, friendly, professional, and faith-promoting environment for students is admirable. However, the current formulation of the BYU Honor Code results in an inappropriate mix of religion and academics which is damaging to and prejudiced against BYU's own Latter-day Saint students (abbreviated LDS, commonly known as "Mormons"). The Honor Code is counterproductive to its own purposes and goes against the spirit of the LDS faith.

The Honor Code[1] currently states:
Students are required to be in good Honor Code standing to be admitted to, continue enrollment at, and graduate from BYU. In conjunction with this requirement, all... students are required to obtain a Continuing Student Ecclesiastical Endorsement for each new academic year.
The requirements for obtaining an ecclesiastical endorsement are generous and flexible for non-LDS students, who are provided with three options:
Non-LDS students are to be endorsed by (1) the local ecclesiastical leader if the student is an active member of the congregation, (2) the bishop of the LDS ward in which they currently reside, or (3) the nondenominational BYU chaplain.
Once baptized LDS, however, a student no longer has the option of receiving an ecclesiastical endorsement from the nondenominational BYU chaplain, nor from activity in a non-LDS congregation. LDS students are left with one option.
LDS students may be endorsed only by the bishop of the ward (1) in which they live and (2) that holds their current Church membership record.
Finally, if the LDS student chooses or is forced to leave the LDS faith, they have no option and are kicked out of BYU.
Former LDS students are not eligible to receive an ecclesiastical endorsement
Though BYU is typically welcoming of those of non-LDS faiths, it is unusually hostile towards LDS students, and imposes special restrictions on them to prevent them from leaving that religion. Presumably, it is the best interests of the remainder of the LDS student body that motivate this section of the Honor Code: it is an attempt to shelter them from doubt and dissent by weeding out "problem students." Its effect is, at first blush, in line with the Honor Code's goals. It censors dissent, creating a calmer environment.

But consider those students who might wish to leave the LDS Church. Surely none intend to do so upon enrollment at BYU. They fully agree to the Honor Code; as faithful LDS Church members at the time, or as converts to the faith during their studentship, these restrictions seem irrelevant. However, at some point, doubt sets in, and a decision is made to depart from the faith. Rather than go through the pains of transferring schools, many instead choose to simply slog through. They must live a lie for the sake of their academic career. The Honor Code manipulates behaviors by threat of academic consequences. If the goal is religious retention, then the effect is just the opposite: jaded graduates come to despise the LDS Church and BYU for causing them to prolong a pretense of belief. BYU offers no way for a member of the LDS faith to leave the church and retain studentship: this very case is explicitly prohibited by the Honor Code!

It is unbecoming of an academic institution to suppress or hide dissenting views. Worse, it is hypocritical for a religious institution to preach, "let [all men] worship how, where, or what they may,"[2] but then threaten academic consequences if an LDS student's conscience dictates a different form of worship.

In summary, the BYU Honor Code has the mere effect of improving the appearance of conformity at BYU, at the great cost of undermining the religious freedoms of its LDS students. Like a bad gang, the Honor Code attempts to maintain LDS membership by threat of punishment for leaving. The effects of this particular policy work against the Honor Code's true goals, and the spirit of this policy is in plain opposition to the articles of the LDS faith.


[2] 11th Article of Faith.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Curiosity, Obedience, and The Shelf

Religion answers all questions, up until it doesn't.

I was running late. I scarfed down some hot chocolate and grabbed a large chunk of bread from the continental breakfast to eat on the go. I stopped at the front desk to pay the tax for the hotel, 3 euros per night times 6 nights, 18 euros total. The scholarship covered the other hotel expenses for me, but for whatever reason I was expected to pay for this out of my own pocket. I bid silent goodbye to my last 20 euro bill. The man handling the transaction moved agonizingly slowly. Finally he handed me the receipt. I held the receipt and the handle to my luggage in one hand, and the bread in my other hand (which I was actively munching on), and off I went, hurrying to Roma Termini. I passed the public running water as I went, and realized that I was thirsty. "No time," I told myself. I had left the empty milk bottle (I had used as a water bottle during the conference) in the hotel room, and there was no turning back now. It was already a little past 9:40, the recommended time to be at the airport for my 11:40 flight. I got in line for a bus ticket to the airport. Luckily, the bus pulled up while I was in line. The person in front of me hurried off to get on the bus, and I expected to do the same. I waited while the man behind the counter handled a phone call. I waited. And waited. Why was he taking so long? Surely he knew that I and those behind me were anxious to get on the bus. He handed the phone to the woman next to him. She raised her voice and rapidly spoke in Italian for a minute. The man simply waited for her to be done before finally turning to me. I had been holding out my money visibly, trying to catch his attention for some time. "Fiumicino" I said (referring to the airport). He said something like "yes that's nice" and handed me a ticket and a laminated "boarding pass." "10:45," he said, pointing to a schedule. I was perplexed. I went out to the bus and presented them with the items given to me.

"You're on the next one," I was told. My heart sunk. I stepped back a little to contemplate my situation. I had about 8 euros left, not counting the 5 US dollars in my wallet and the 100 US dollars emergency stash on my hidden travel belt. I looked at the boarding pass. "Why not stay at our cafe, your seat on the next bus is guaranteed!" I watched as they essentially threw two people off of the bus, and had to open up the luggage compartment so that they could retrieve their bags and wait for the next bus.

Knowing the seat was guaranteed, I headed for the train ticket terminal. I waited for the man ahead of me, who seemed to go through each step on the electronic screen at a snail's pace. I was hoping to save money by taking the bus, but perhaps the train could get me there sooner. I checked the time, 10:05. Finally it was my turn. Fortunately I was able to pay for the 14 euro ticket with my Visa card; I didn't want to waste time and money changing my emergency dollars into euros. Next train to Fiumicino AIrport: 10:20. 25 minutes earlier than the bus, plus the ride might be faster. My ticket said that plane boarding time was 10:40, and boarding is always a slow process of people and luggage, etc, so I figured that I would arrive by train at 10:50 and be fine; plenty of time before takeoff at 11:40. I hurriedly located the appropriate train. It's 10:08, oh I hope this is the right one, that sign said Fiumicino, right? I stood at the platform assessing the train and trying to figure out where I should get on and what to do with my recently-acquired ticket. A young boy drew my attention. "Mister, mister!" He guided me to a nearby automatic ticket validator and helped me insert my ticket for validation. I smiled and turned. "Mister, mister!" He led me the other way, onto the train and to an empty seat. He seemed a little suspicious at this point, but nonetheless I let him take my luggage and put it on the luggage rack. I sat down, and he held out his hand for a tip. I reluctantly reached for the 2 euro coin I received as change from the hotel and dropped it into his hand. He seemed disappointed and begged for "five." Of course I had a 5 euro bill in my wallet, but that was practically the last of my euros. I apologized and lied, "that's all the euros I have." After some amount of shrugging and apologetic "there's nothing I can do" hand gestures on my part, he finally gave up. He had the gall to ask for 5 euros for one minute's worth of unsolicited work? Seriously...

Well I arrived at the airport around 10:50 as anticipated. I managed to discover that I was at Terminal 3 and needed to be at Terminal 5. I also managed to find a bus that would apparently take me there for free. It was empty. "Terminal 5?" I inquired of the bus driver. He confirmed. I sat down and wondered when the bus would leave. It did so immediately, with me as the only passenger, how odd...

We arrived a few minutes later. I walked past the doors which said "enter" but were blocked off with caution tape, to the similar doors which permitted entry. The place was practically empty. Great! No long lines to wait through.

I walked over to a counter labeled US Airways, where a man was on the phone. I pulled out my boarding pass, worried that the printer may not have printed the barcode properly, and held it out to him. He seemed to spend a long time silent, waiting on the phone. "Today's flight? You missed it," he said nonchalantly. What? Apparently there was only one today. I confirmed, "to Philladelphia?" "Yes, you missed it." I was dumbfounded. He turned his attention back to the call. I looked at the time. 11:00. I checked the ticket, 11:40 departure. I waited a while, and then tired of waiting for his phone call. "I missed it? But it just started boarding 20 minutes ago." "You're too late." He was on and off of the phone, apparently one of the passengers didn't have his "boarding documents." The man in front of me was apparently determined to get that passenger on the plane at all costs, but couldn't care less about me.

"Hello, yes, this man doesn't have his boarding documents. If you could just fax them to me..." That person on the other end of the phone call was apparently an idiot, because this guy just repeated himself over and over. He had a British accent, but sometimes also spoke in Italian.

Another young man, possibly from the same conference, appeared behind me. "You're too late," he was informed. "But the plane doesn't leave for 35 minutes," he objected. "You're too late, you missed it." "But it hasn't taken off!" "It's taking off, you're too late." And yet on the phone he was saying things like "we can't let this man board without the documents," so obviously there was someone who was not yet on the plane but would be soon. I have my documents right here, let me on, I thought to myself. This man was wasting my time and I still didn't buy into what he was saying. My plane leaves in 1/2 an hour, and you are too busy (doing nothing on the phone) to help get me on my plane. I eyed the area. Perhaps I could just go through and find someone more reasonable to help get me on that plane?

Alas, there was no apparent alternative. Finally, during pauses in the phone call, he told me that he found the same plane route for me, but it would start tomorrow and end tomorrow evening. He handed me a printout, and started dealing with the man behind me. "Is this all I need?" I asked. "Yes," he responded, and mumbled something about getting the tickets at the desk the next day. "You must be here by 10:40." The next day's flight was also at 11:40.

I returned to Terminal 3 and found an info desk. I explained my situation and was told that the airport was open 24 hours a day and that I could rest in the chairs upstairs. I found an internet station, but it charged an obscene 12 euros an hour and wouldn't work with my credit card. How absurd. The cyber cafes near Roma Termini charged a tenth of that price, but of course a round trip would cost 30 euros by train. I pulled out the last bits of change I had, 1.20 euros, and managed to write 1 email, 1 Facebook post, and 1 text message (via google voice) in 6 minutes, informing relevant people of my plan changes.

Consider four particular sources of irritation for me today: the bus, the boy who asked for "five," the plane, and the internet station. Each scenario caused me varying levels of annoyance due to lack of justification. There was no explanation of why I couldn't just squeeze onto that bus. There was no basis for which the boy deserved 5 euros instead of just 2 or even none at all. The man at the airport seemed like an outright liar, simply asserting "you missed it" with no further elaboration. The internet station offered service no better than the cyber cafe; other than greed, what right had they to charge such an absurd price?

The human mind consistently asks why, as anyone with a preschooler can tell you. We crave understanding of the way the world around us works. A teen often wonders why he should listen to his parents. Tyrants and false gods are overthrown when the oppressed join their voices and ask why. (Silly example: the movie A Bug's Life.)

God works in mysterious ways. Do you think you are smarter than God? The prophets can see truths that are hidden from the rest of us. You don't have to undertand everything, just trust God and His servants.

These are the why-killers. When a customer gets uppity, it is easier to simply assert authority rather than detailing the processes and policies and reasoning behind them, especially when you have other customers and a pressing matter to attend to. The same mass production attitude can sometimes manifest itself in religion. The problem is that this doesn't actually answer the question. It does not satisfy the basic human desire to understand why. It is much easier to control a population of unquestioning disciples than curious questioners. Again, any parent can attest to this.

Listening to and speaking with Mormons about doubt, you will inevitably hear them mention "the shelf." When you come upon some unanswered question, some conflicting evidence, something that doesn't fit in with your current worldview, you essentially have two healthy choices: either immediately alter your beliefs to address the unanswered question, or "put it up on the shelf" pending further details or enlightenment. Usage of "the shelf" is to be encouraged, for it is a model that values all new input. It admits a certain level of humility: I may not have all the evidence. It adds a sort of safety buffer, allowing one to gradually shift one's thinking towards the truth, while protecting against deception. "The shelf" should perhaps be labeled "skepticism," or resisting the absorption of new and sensational information without consistent or compelling evidence to support it. Usage of the shelf should be cautioned against, lest the shelf be turned into a trash bin where anything that conflicts with one's worldview is sent to be ignored indefinitely. Careless use of the shelf can be a why-killer.

The Mormon religion boasts of exceptional why-answering capabilities. Ever wondered where you came from, why you're here, or where you're going? Mormonism bills itself as sort of a Christianity Plus, now with 30% more answers! But wait, there's more! Doctrines of living prophets and personal revelation mean that the Mormon canon remains open to refinement by a loving and caring God whose entire "work and glory" is to make us eventually all-powerful and all-knowing, like Him. What could possibly be more appealing to a why-asker than a direct and personal link to the very source of absolute truth?

But then, the truly curious person will eventually hit the boundaries. "There is still a lot we do not know about the afterlife." "Some things we may never know on this earth." Mormons claim that a portion of the Gold Plates (source text of the Book of Mormon) was sealed, because the world wasn't ready for this additional information. The world wasn't worthy to know yet. "Why should we expect more when we don't even take advantage of what we already have? I learn something new every time I re-read the Book of Mormon."

This seemingly sensible rhetoric pulls a strange and subtle trick. It turns curiosity into conformity. It turns doubt into complacency. It quietly suffocates "why," relegating your sincere questions to the shelf, and spoon-feeds you the answers you "should" care about instead. It turns the shelf into a trash bin, recommending that you distract yourself from disbelief. It brands you as arrogant and ungrateful for challenging the status quo, or honors you as wise and humble for abandoning doubt and displaying conformity.

This whole topic has an important connection to "free agency" or "free will." Mormons do not believe in predestination. Freedom to choose is central to God's plan. And yet religion is riddled with coercion and social pressure. We want to "help" people make the right decisions.

Freedom to ask "why" and seek answers for one's self is at the heart of free agency, and at the very core of Mormonism itself. Joseph Smith, the religious founder, claimed to see a vision of God and Jesus in response to his personal quest to find the truth. Various of his visions followed from asking questions about a passage of scripture. Missionaries encourage investigators to find out for themselves by reading and praying about the Book of Mormon.

Free agency and faith building are therefore concepts in tension. Again consider parenting. A child chooses to drink and drive, and the parents subsequently take away the car keys. Parents may forbid a child from hanging out with or dating someone who they know is involved in illegal drugs or unsafe sex. God, the perfect parent of us all, does not directly impose such restrictions on us. Why then, do we do so to our children? It is because we have a sense that they are not ready to make their own decisions yet.

The same seems to happen in a religious context. We try to apply social pressure to "help" our peers. "We are all at different stages of spiritual development, and we need each other to make it through. If we can just strengthen each other, then we can make it through moments of weakness unscathed. In essence, we should not be left to ourselves, entirely free to make mistakes."

We interrupt this program for an important message from Ms. Frizzle.

Take chances! Make mistakes! Get messy!

The Frizz's advice embodies curiosity, truth seeking, and the scientific method in a way that continues to impress me. I have a love/hate relationship with Mormonism. I value "free agency," or the right to ascertain truth and choose for one's self, more highly than anything. Mormonism pays lip service to the concept, but does not seem to respect free agency in practice.