Emptiness, wind, and potatoes. At least what I inferred were potatoes. These were my first impressions of Idaho as I completed a family trip up to Rexburg in the fall of 2010. Having just graduated high school, I was excited to begin my first college semester at Brigham Young University – Idaho (BYU-I). It was a sunny but chilly autumn day. Typical climate for this region; one that suffers from sub-zero temperatures come winter. The defining landmark, an LDS temple, sat on top of the cities only hill and majestically overlooked the slow bustling and traffic of this tiny farming/college town. Directly beneath the temple sat the BYU-I campus with its plethora of inter-mural sports fields and academic buildings. Indeed, this city struck me as a utopia. I had found my heaven on earth and it was a city held together by voluntary dedication and reverence for religious ideals, patriotism, outdoor activities, and academia. If there ever was a conservative utopia, this must be it.
Excited I unpacked, moved in, and said goodbye. The next couple days were spent just eating food, playing video games, and watching TV. Some excursions were made to a field for some football or rugby. When Sunday finally came around, we all dressed up and went to church. Oblivious to what the future holds, it was not only going to be a new era of academia, but also one of social upheaval and cognitive dissonance.
To fully understand this story will require some simple knowledge concerning the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and the honor code policies that are implemented on the private campuses owned by the church. The honor code policies differ across the campuses, but are basically the same as they rely on the LDS canon of scriptures and doctrine. The honor code is a set of rules that all students must agree to live before they are accepted to the institution. As a general summary, it requires one to live and abide by the precepts and teachings of the LDS church. This includes:
- The law of chastity: No sex outside of marriage. No swearing and modest dressing. No piercings or beards for men. One set of piercing for women and it must be on the earlobe. Appropriate dating norms, whatever they are, as no one really knows.
- The word of wisdom: No tea, alcohol, drugs, smoking, or coffee.
- Weekly church attendance and active church participation.
Generally speaking, this is enough to get one through the school without any trouble or violations of the honor code. I myself was aware of and willing to live these policies when I chose BYU-I for my college degree. What usually gets people though are the nuances and less understood or unknown contents of the policy. A situation I would soon find myself stuck in.
My naivety hurt me though as I began college. I shouldn’t have taken so many classes. It was 19 or 21 credit hours total. Yet, the defining moment of this semester proved to be in the Fundamentals of Science class I took. It was a simple and enjoyable class that felt like my old high school science classes and I enjoyed the review. However, this being a private school allowed for a unique section that I had never had before. Religion and science: Do they contradict one another? This was a topic I honestly had never thought about before. It seemed so obvious to me that science had provided substantial growth to the repertoire of human knowledge. Yet, I had never sat down and considered any plausible contradictions between the two. I’d always assumed they were complimentary and it logically followed that truths could not be contradictory.
Thus began my questioning of my religion. Let it be noted however that the focus of this story is not on the relationship between science and religion. Rather, this is a story of religious freedom. That being said, I constantly grew skeptical as I began studying epistemology and LDS church history. What I discovered though scared me. It was so vastly different from everything I had understood growing up. Within months I began questioning my religion. Yet I still decided to serve as a Mormon missionary despite my doubts. I decided that if I served as a missionary, my lack of conviction may not be enough to convert others, but I would at the very least convert myself.
March 17, 2011
“Dear Elder Linder: You are hereby called to serve as a missionary of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. You are assigned to labor in the Philippines Quezon City Mission.”
June 28, 2013
I returned home with an honorable release a changed man, but that’s a topic for another time. My lack of conviction had not been alleviated and within days, I declared myself privately as an atheist to my friend. Ironically, I had to stand up and bear my testimony the next day that I believed the church was true. That Joseph Smith was a prophet, all in front of hundreds of people at church. If you refer to the earlier section on the honor code; one of the basic rules is that one must be active in their religious beliefs. As I was still returning to BYU-I I had to ensure that I kept my standing with the honor code office. Failure to retain the ecclesiastical endorsement (a recommendation from a religious chaplain) will result in suspension from the school as church attendance and standing is a condition of admission. Fearing that I could lose my accumulated credits, admission to the school, and the social fallout of abandoning the religion, I became a closet atheist. Being an atheist in the US is already hard enough. As one, you are a member of one of the most stigmatized and distrusted demographics in the nation.
According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Recent polls indicate that atheists are among the least liked people in areas with religious majorities (i.e., in most of the world).”1 In fact, there are still states that ban atheists from holding office in their constitutions. Even scarier for us atheists is that almost half of all Americans say they would be unhappy if a family member married an atheist.2 Imagine what this means for one in the LDS dating culture and knowing that it’s more than likely that those friendly faces around you disapprove of your non-belief so much they would be upset that you joined their family. Anxiety is the only way to describe how I felt every day in class and every Sunday at church. I constantly had to check everything I said to avoid disclosing a hint of my secret beliefs. So why not be open? Why the fear and anxiety? It wasn’t only social.
BYU’s own honor code states that “excommunication, disfellowshipment, or disaffiliation from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints automatically results in the loss of good Honor Code standing.”3A This also results in the termination of your ecclesiastical endorsement. Harsh, but that’s okay though right it you can renew it for the next semester? Well, there is more. “Students who are not in good Honor Code standing are not eligible for graduation, even if they have otherwise completed all necessary coursework.”3B Wow. Surprising, but still not a big deal if you can renew your endorsement and get back to a good honor code standing. This line of thought would be accurate if they didn’t follow these policies up with “former LDS students are not eligible to receive an ecclesiastical endorsement.”3C This means that LDS students who for some reason or another switch faiths while attending school cannot freely express this change until they have either graduated or transferred schools. If they do leave the church while at BYU, they are instantly barred from being readmitted to the school and they can’t graduate. God forbid that one falls prey to these policies unwittingly.
BYU is indeed a magnificent school. Times magazine rated BYU’s business school as the 21st best school in the United States for a business degree.4 Tuition is also very affordable, especially for LDS students who receive a subsidized price. The LDS church uses tithing money to subsidize the costs of tuition and education for LDS students. As a result, they have different pricing options which I was also able to utilize as an LDS student. Non-LDS students on the other hand do not receive the subsidized price.
Understandably, BYU wants the tithing money that is collected from other LDS members around the world to go towards students who are also active participants in the church. This is understandable and should continue. However, this doesn’t mean the policies should not be changed to allow LDS students to switch to another faith (or lack of). Something I wish I could have done. I was willing to live by the policies which I had agreed to, what I really wanted was the ability to freely express my inner beliefs. To allow this, a simple proposition can be made. Allow those who leave the church, like me, to renew their ecclesiastical endorsement with a bishop or acceptable religious chaplain as a non-LDS student at BYU. Upon approval and agreement to live by the honor code and other policies unique to BYU, the individual can now begin or continue their education.
I spent my last 3 semesters at BYU-I hiding any sign of my non-belief and pretending to be LDS until I was able to obtain an associate’s degree. I will admit that although I was willing to live by the honor code, I struggled sometimes in doing so. I am convinced that my inability to express myself and the repression influenced me in acting sometimes in ways not consistent with the honor code. I think it important to admit this. I made mistakes which the honor code office did forgive me for. Yet, for some reason I could not receive their support in changing my religious affiliation? Others have a different story though. I can’t speak for them, but their suppressed voices quietly and anonymously echo around the hallways of the internet. They await the day that society finally heeds their calls for justice.
The song Ill of Mind Hopsin 7 by Hopsin poignantly conveys much of what I felt as I made my journey out of religion. | Video Credit: Hopsintv
As an institution BYU is highly respectable, having recently garnished widespread admiration for their integrity in upholding the honor code policy. Yet, so few are aware of the small wording that inhibits individual and even constitutional freedoms. I personally hope however that these infringing policies were not intentionally implemented. As a missionary in the Philippines, we were often taught the concepts of humility and chastening. These we were rightly taught were complimentary. Accept your mistakes so you can improve upon them. Yet, you must be open to chastisement. It was also important that the chastiser also exercised humility and respect at the same time. So let me take my time to humbly chasten the administration at BYU with their own doctrinal code of conduct. I do so while keeping in mind the sentiment from Doctrine & Covenants, section 1, verses 27 and 28.
“And inasmuch as they sinned they might be chastened, that they might repent; And inasmuch as they were humble they might be made strong, and blessed from on high, and receive knowledge from time to time.”
So let me respectfully chasten you BYU that you may be blessed with knowledge. Found within all scriptures printed by the LDS church lay the Articles of Faith. Number eleven states:
We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.5
It is indeed honorable that BYU seeks “to educate students in an atmosphere consistent with the ideals and principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”6 Yet, maybe it’s time for BYU to consider living by them too.
- Gervais, Will M., Azim F. Shariff, and Ara Norenzayan. “Do You Believe in Atheists? Distrust Is Central to Anti-atheist Prejudice.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101.6 (2011): 1189-206. APA PsycNET. American Psychological Association, Dec. 2011. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
- Hafiz, Yasmine. “Atheists Face Discrimination On A Shocking Level.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 28 Sept. 2015. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/26/atheist-discrimination-humanist-association_n_5531296.html.
- “Undergraduate Catalog.” Brigham Young University- Idaho. Web. 29 Sept. 2015. https://registrar.byu.edu/catalog/2014-2015ucat/GeneralInfo/HonorCode.php.
- Brandeisky, Kara. “The 25 Best Colleges for Earning a Degree in Business.” Time. Time, 10 Apr. 2015. Web. 29 Sept. 2015. http://time.com/money/3814432/best-colleges-business-majors/.
- The Articles of Faith.” LDS.org. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Web. 29 Sept. 2015. https://www.lds.org/scriptures/pgp/a-of-f/1.11?lang=eng#10.
- “University Standards.” (n.d.): n. pag. Brigham Young University- Idaho. Web. 28 Sept. 2015. http://www.byui.edu/Documents/student-honor/University%20Standards%202014-2015.pdf.