BYU’s Dept. of Religious “Education”

I’m sure many of us have realized that BYU’s Religion Department uses the title “Religious Education” rather than “Religious Studies”. BYU-Hawaii even refers to their religion department as “The Department of Religious Education”.

There seems to be a distinction that Church schools are trying to make by differentiating themselves as religious “educators” rather than religious “studiers”. The home page of BYU’s religious department states that their mission is “to build the Kingdom of God by teaching and preserving the doctrine of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” “Education” in this respect seems to be about fostering good members of the Church that are well versed in their tradition. Personally I can see the role for such a program; but are we losing something by “educating” in this manner? I would have to say that personally I left BYU not even knowing how much I really didn’t know. In other words, while I feel like I learned about Mormonism I was completely unaware that there was a world of “religious studies” going on outside of Mormonism; and that Mormonism in all actuality has so few voices taking place in the larger conversations.

The other issue I’d like to raise is, could (or should) BYU ever have a Religious Studies Department? If so how could such a thing ever come to pass? The background behind this question is that Utah State has started a BA in religious studies (; and in some regards I can’t help but feel that demand is abundant, and if BYU doesn’t develop a religious studies program they will continue to sit on the sidelines of the conversations about religion which ironically is also about themselves.

16 Replies to “BYU’s Dept. of Religious “Education””

  1. BYU won’t ever have a Religious Studies department independent from RelEd. On the other hand, not everyone gets your impression of it. It’s highly dependent on the profs. one takes. I would actually put up BYU’s new ANES degree (replacing the old NE Studies degree) against any undergrad Biblical studies degree at other schools.

  2. Ben,What exactly in my last post would “everyone” not agree with? Nowhere did I say that ALL BYU professors are “X”, or that EVERYONE leaves BYU with a poor understanding of what the wider picture of religious studies is all about. I think I qualified the statement quite adequately.But for the sake of argument, could you please tell me which professors are teaching/talking about religious studies methodology that prepares students for engaging in broader religious studies issues?Furthermore, I can’t speak for a BYU NES degree in relation to other school’s Bibilical studies degrees, because I didn’t graduate in any related field. But I certainly can say that BYU’s NES program is certainly NOT a religious studies program, and neither are many other school’s Bibilical studies programs. If you’re implying that Biblical studies is religious studies…. Although they certainly overlap (and how much they overlap may vary from program to program),they aren’t equivalent. If this is what you have in mind than I would say that you actually reflect the very same insularity I was criticizing in the current notion of what doing work in religion means at BYU.

  3. diahman,You are right. BYU doesn’t engage in religious studies in any real sense. The mission of the Religion department is not the academic study of religion; it is the strengthening of testimonies and the encouraging of character. It is possible to find something akin to religious studies at BYU, but it is more likely found in the Anthropology, English, Philosophy, and Sociology departments.That said, the Religion department recognizes the descrepancy and is seeking to address it. They are in a transitional phase.

  4. The question I feel needs to be asked, which is all too often assumed by those in charge, is about the “preservation” of doctrine that diahman quoted from the RelEd site. I’m not sure we have such a clearly defined set of doctrine(s), though certain tenets do seem to have taken on aspects of creeds. (One need not review here the “inquisition” similes, though one is tempted…)What I’m concerned with, personally, is that the Depts of the Rel Ed College present, (speaking generally and not individually), such an idea, viz. that a broad range of tenets must be held if one is to be considered a good Latter-day Saint, even though there is good evidence that the Church avoids such a stance, right from Joseph Smith (Robert Millet has a paper on this idea about the small core of our doctrine, called “What is our Doctrine?”, though I don’t know if it’s widely available. Anyone?)I think they should change their statement to reflect what they really do, and that is teach a form of Mormon ethical behavior.I see the real phenomenon as being the one that ultimately divides and subdivides all religious groups (those that have studied orthodoxy and heresy will know how ignorant I am on this point). Given a spectrum of praxis, the vein that is most conservative also seems to be the one that often gains power, because they’re the ones that the wider group can all agree on. In other words, it’s easier for reform Jews to go to orthodox weddings than vice versa. This conservative stance invariably morphs into a doctrinal statement (white shirts and clean shaves are the uniform of the church, nay, the priesthood, for men) and it’s easier for leadership not to contravene lest they send the wrong message, and the conservative position gains strength. This is the way most traditions proceed, as far as I can tell. Hedge about the law and all that. Thus “preservation of doctrine” really means “creation of new orthodoxy/ies”. No longer can we talk about Isa in his own context, no longer can we say that the footnotes in the 1981 edition of the “standard works” are not scripture, etc. And the conservatives seem to be in power in the religion dept, and are stacking the deck in their favor (when it comes to leadership) as we speak.In any case, diahman and hp are right about the fact that religious studies are not done there, but the great irony is that neither are Mormon studies.I’m curious to know what hp knows about the transition in RelEd at BYU.

  5. HP,What do you think is realistic to expect from the Rel Ed dept. in the short run? In the long run? How would you do things differently?

  6. I don’t see why religious studies can’t be integrated into BYU’s “religious education.” Do religious studies necessarily erode testimonies? I don’t think so. I believe that making students aware of the discussions and debates that are occuring, particularly those relating to Mormonism, can only be beneficial.I looked forward to my BYU religion classes, but typically walked away from them feeling underwhelmed. Why can’t a Book of Mormon class discuss the debates about the origins of the book, BoM geography, Native American DNA, etc.? These don’t have to erode testimonies; rather, they can educate and inoculate students. Most BYU students are going to come face-to-face with the challenges raised by these debates at some point in time, and I think it’s better that they first encounter them in a friendly, faith-promoting environment.

  7. I don’t want to say too much, because some of what I have been told I have been told in confidence. I would say that the qualifications for working in the department have shifted from what they once were and that this is leading to a change of approach within the department. That said, it is a long process, fraught with peril and one that I am only observing as an outsider. There is a chance that you will see the Religion department morphing slowly into something more similar to a religious studies department, but I don’t see it becoming one. For that matter, I think it equally likely that you may see the department moving away from that model violently in a few years. As I said, I believe it to be a department in transition.I think its primary goal (that of helping people become good Mormons) is a good one and, since I don’t see that goal changing, I think that what you will eventually find are a large group of scholars who teach several classes in house, but who have dual appointments in other departments that allow them to teach and research more directly in their field of interest if they so choose. But that is pure speculation; I don’t have any clue what the future holds at all.Steve M.,Religious studies cannot be integrated because its goals are different. Ultimately, the Religion Department is a seminary, training people in the theology of a particular religion (such as it is, jc). Religious studies represents the academic attempt to understand how religion itself works. Its focus is broader and its conclusions are meant to be atheological. They operate in two entirely different fields.Also, while I am, in general, a believer in inoculation, I don’t see it as the job of the religion department to do it. Or rather, the best that the religion department (or anybody really) can do to inoculate someone is to help them come to their own conversion. That isn’t a matter of explaining Nephite DNA; that is a matter of convincing people to really apply the Book of Mormona and other scripture to their own life. I imagine that the DNA discussion might be important in a genetics, public health, history, anthropology, or archaeological class, but I don’t think it aids the mission of the Religion department to address it directly. It is hard enough getting people to read and pray regularly.

  8. Perhaps I can clarify my thoughts a little more….I certainly would not advocate completely transforming the Rel Ed department into a Rel Studies department. I really do see a large role for the type of work that is currently done there. Some of the most enjoyable classes I’ve taken have been in the Rel dept. They do a great job converting young hungry minds to Mormonism.That being said however, I would have loved to at least had the option to take a class taught as a religious studies course. I think this issue is compounded by a conflation of the term “education” in the department title. It becomes slyly ambiguous since most young students don’t know that “education” really means “preserving” the doctrine of the church. For all I knew as a young student, a department of religious “education” was basically the same thing as a department of religious “studies”. I don’t think most people would make the distinction between the two terms the way that the current department of religion makes. The importation of “education”, however, seems to come from the Church Educational System.And once again, while I have no qualms with CES, their notion of “education” ends up masquerading (perhaps unintentionally) as an academic class in BYU’s religion department. This results in many students thinking that they have received academic training in “religious studies”, only to go somewhere else and discover they’ve gotten something quite different (valuable in its own right of course, but not in the larger conversations we thought it might).

  9. In regards to USU starting up a religious studies program… I can’t help but feel that this will put BYU into a position that will cause them to (continue to?) reconsider their current stance. In the larger scheme of academia, we’ve been more or less excluded from the conversations about religious studies for a long time(perhaps we even excluded ourselves). If USU gets this program up and running, I could see that many LDS students who want to academically study religion would make USU their choice over BYU. This would in effect sideline BYU (at least partially) from much of the discourse that in the long run may end up defining “Mormon Studies” and may also help to articulate a Mormon voice in the field of Religious Studies.The irony of course is that we’ve periodically watched non-Mormons from an academic perspective talk about what Mormonism is, now we’ll have to watch our own do it, with the player that has the most potential (aka BYU) sitting on the sidelines (as far as students dictate the future of the field at least).

  10. The thing is that most of what happens on campus at BYU falls into the category of Mormon studies. Some of the History classes consider the historical application of the Book of Mormon. Many philosophy courses attempt to engage traditional philosophical problems in Mormon ways. I assume that similar things happen in departments I am unfamiliar with. The fact that BYU doesn’t have a “Mormon Studies” program doesn’t imply that it doesn’t engage in Mormon Studies or that it doesn’t have a role to play.

  11. I think the question is how much of a discipline is “Mormon Studies” if you have trained historians doing it, trained psychologists doing it, but practically no trained religionists doing it? Isn’t it odd that a religious phenomenon is not investigated as such by the very people it proports to be about?Personally I’m less interested in the issue of Mormon Studies and more interested in the possibility of BYU doing religious studies. I’m sure that BYU will always have a hand in the historical aspects of Mormon Studies, but the aspect I was speaking about in the previous post is in regards to Mormonism qua religious phenomenon, and situated in a broader field of context.

  12. I’ve got to respond to ben’s statement: I would actually put up BYU’s new ANES degree (replacing the old NE Studies degree) against any undergrad Biblical studies degree at other schools.I agree fundamentally with ben’s posts on other blogs (sorry, don’t know how yet to use the link feature) regarding the creation of the Ancient Near Eastern Studies major. From all I can tell, it’s giving BYU religion professors whose ancient Near Eastern expertise has long lain dormant. It’s great to see guys such as Kent Jackson, Dana Pike, and David Seely teaching things they were trained to do at world-class universities (UMich, UPenn, UMich, respectively) under the biggest names in the field. What is more, this is not, as far as I can tell, a rehashing of the old degree, but contains some perhaps unexpected items, the most noteworthy being the innocuously named “ANES 363: Hebrew Bible Studies.” Its description promises to make some waves, however: “Current analytical methods used in academic study and interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.” This will include, if there is truth in advertising, the various types of criticisms most pertinent to Biblical Studies: Source Crit, Rhetorical Crit, Text Crit, etc. I wait with baited breath to see how this goes over. I’m guessing Seely will do a great job, but I’m anxious to see what kind of oversight, if any, will arise.Where I beg to differ from ben, at the moment, is a result of the problem of the Religion Department itself. Were this major offered primarily by, say, a Near Eastern Studies Department, two or three profoundly weak points could be resolved: 1) The Hebrew instruction could be taught by other than grad students, and in a much more robust way than currently done. (This point does not carry over to the Classics route.)2) The core text classes could be offered by other than religion faculty. A BYU OT or NT class, in my experience and judging from the range of professors allowed to teach these, tends not to teach the text of the OT or NT in the way normally done in “Biblical Studies” programs. (I know there are exceptions–both in terms of BYU professors and of other programs.) But the bottom line is that an ANES major can be instructed in OT or NT by those not trained in OT or NT. This is a fundamental flaw.3) This major would begin to rank with others nationwide if its faculty participated in the (national and international) field. I’ve heard rumors that some BYU rel profs have begun to start publishing in other (non-LDS) venues, but BYU is not known in the least for its OT/NT scholarship. Two factors seem to contribute to this isolation: 1) the Religion Department, which houses most of the core ANES faculty (judging by the web site of “interested professors” and by those that have actually taught ANES core courses) allows LDS publications to count for rank advancement, so Ensign articles count, Deseret Book publications count, etc. These are much easier to churn out, with the result that no one takes the time and effort to engage in the wider field. Plus, LDS pubs are much more lucrative than Biblical Studies monographs, making the choice even easier.and 2): There is no member of the (again, Religion) faculty, that engages in the mainstream of Biblical Studies. Perhaps for obvious reasons, BYU is not producing scholarship on the fundamental aspects of Biblical research. The professors, as far as I can tell, are relegated to “safe” areas: Dead Sea Scrolls/II-temple texts, Moabite language, etc. Why is there no BYU prof, for example, writing on the Doc Hypothesis, from any perspective? Why do our only LDS treatments of this topic come from non-specialists?Until such fundamental issues were addressed, I think I’d send my kid elsewhere for Biblical Studies. But there’s hope on the horizon.jc

  13. Who’s got a phone number for the guys at USU?I could ski and teach Bible. That’d be heaven.

  14. diahman,I am wondering what specific changes you would like to see. What counts as “religious studies”? As you know, there is serious disagreement inside the field of religious studies with regard to methods, approaches, etc. Some have suggested that religious studies is just poorly done anthropology, theology in disguise, a subsection of literature, or history. What do you mean by “religious studies” and how should BYU do it?

  15. The ironic thing is that I was sitting in a presentation this afternoon on the future of the academic study of religion and thought to myself that perhaps I had implied a little more certitude in my previous posts than I should have. When I came home, lo and behold, there was your post.Perhaps I should clarify that I was less trying to assert a clear and comprehensive notion of what “religious studies” is, and more trying to make that point that we have neglected the possibility of participating in a growing discourse.I believe the disagreements about what exactly religious studies is, shares many commonalities with debates in other fields such as anthropology—i.e. what is anthropology? What is its relationship with ethnography? Can ethnography be done in urban settings? Or in situations where the “local” is connected with other localities that are separated by great distances? How do you define the “local” in a world where localities are coliding more intensely than ever before? The last question in particular bears some resemblance to the challenges brought on the category of “religion” as we continue to discover the large diversity in the world. But with that said, there are of course significant differences as well that have to do with the history of the category “religion”.My point (at least as far as I’ve been able to articulate it) is that “fields” are always up for debate; and the intersection of questions such as “who gets to decide” and “why one position remains the normative position” are universal questions that plague not only religious studies, but even the organizations we usually take to be “religious” (are Mormon’s Christians, for instance). One way to answer the question (albeit, perahps somewhat unsatisfactorily) is that the field of religious studies is for the group of inquirers to define.Now, I don’t think that necessarily aleviates me from personally answering your question, but the issue at hand here is that I’m not saying that a positivistic notion of “religious studies methology” needs to be implemented at BYU. Instead we can’t continue to ignore the ever-growing conversation of which we should be a part. We can’t participate half-heartedly in a global conversation and then claim to be a global church. Not only do we lose out because we might actually have something interesting and unique to say (I’m still struggling to figure that out for myself personally), but we might also miss out on marvelous opportunities for us to learn from others as well. On the one hand I can understand the role of religious “education”; but I guess my hostility is directed toward the implied feeling I got that I was learning a much broader discourse than it really was.So what do I think BYU can/should do? I try to respond to that momentarily…

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