Mormon Culture of Education, Technology and Bioethics
15 June 2008 (updated 25 April 2009)
The Book of Mormon contains an intriguing story about a man named Lehi, who in ancient times sought guidance from God while journeying in the desert with his family to find a new home. One morning, upon opening the door of his tent, he discovered on the ground a fine brass ball of “curious workmanship”. On inspecting the ball, Lehi saw that it contained two spindles, and soon learned that one of the spindles would move to guide him through the more fertile parts of the desert. From time to time, messages also appeared on the ball, providing additional assistance during the journey. When Lehi and his family arrived at the sea, his son, Nephi, climbed a nearby mountain to seek further guidance from God. He was inspired to make tools and build an unusual ship, the likes of which he had never before seen. When completed, the ship served to carry them across the sea to their new home. For me, this story epitomizes the importance of education and technology in the Mormon worldview. Mormons do expect inspiration from God, but we do not expect God to do what we can do for ourselves. We can learn and we can build, and so we do.
Mormonism has long emphasized education, both religious and secular. Joseph Smith taught early Mormons that “the glory of God is intelligence”, which later became the motto of Brigham Young University (BYU). Founded by Brigham Young in 1875, BYU now has campuses in Utah, Hawaii, Idaho and Israel, servicing upwards of 50,000 students. The Wall Street Journal ranks BYU #1 among regional graduate business schools, and US News ranks BYU #3 among undergraduate accounting programs. In the United States, BYU is the #1 producer of dental school-bound students, the #6 producer of law school-bound students, a top 10 producer of medical school-bound students, and the #10 producer of graduates who go on to earn PhDs. The LDS Church also operates a “Perpetual Education Fund” that provides student loans to members of the Church, generally in less-developed countries. Students are expected to repay the loans according to their abilities. Since its initiation in 2001, the fund has provided loans to 27,000 students in 39 countries. Some may wonder whether the Mormon emphasis on education is counter-productive to activity and retention in the LDS Church. As it turns out, there is a strong positive correlation between years of formal education and active participation among members of the LDS Church. Mormons also tend to be more highly educated than average among persons in their respective nations. For example, in the United States where 14% of the general population has less than a high school education, only 9% of Mormons have less than a high school education; and where 50% of the general population has some college education or more, 61% of Mormons have some college education or more.
Mormons are avid technological innovators and adopters. My own father, Layne Cannon, was one of the inventors of the word processor. Mormons invented the television, hearing aids, the transistor radio, video games, CD/DVD technology, the electric guitar, department stores, repeating rifles and automatic shotguns, the artificial heart and various bionic body parts, synthetic diamonds, and (for you full-body tanners) the photopermeable swimsuit. The creator of Battlestar Galactica, Glen Larson, and the author of Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card, are both Mormon. You’ll find Mormons all over the Internet. The Mormon blogging community, known as the Bloggernacle, consists of thousands of sites, of which one of the most popular is run by a group of women that call themselves the “Feminist Mormon Housewives”. Mormons in Second Life are running a thriving community, consisting of at least 600 members and six islands with residences, gardens, chapels, temples, shopping centers and recreation areas. The Mormon Transhumanist Association recently established a conference center in the dome of a space station orbiting above the “Inspired Technologies” office tower on the main Mormon island of “Adam ondi Ahman”. In addition, the LDS Church has a world-class online presence at lds.org and mormon.org. Behind that, the Church leverages technology all throughout its operations. For several decades, the Church has outfitted its chapels with satellite dishes, enabling members to participate in Church-wide conferences. Computers can be found throughout chapels and temples. The Church even uses technology as an enabler for some of its rituals. Massive genealogical databases store information regarding members’ ancestors, for whom they perform religious ordinances by proxy. Consequently, the LDS Church is the largest provider of genealogical information on the Internet at familysearch.org.
Mormons also tend to maintain moderate stances in bioethics. For example, while the LDS Church explicitly takes no position on stem cell research, one of the political champions for stem cell research in the United States has been the Utah senator, Orrin Hatch, who is a Mormon. The LDS Church’s position on abortion is somewhat unusual for a Christian church in the United States, in that it opposes abortion for personal or social convenience, but it explicitly recognizes the practical benefit of abortion in some cases and so implicitly supports its legality. The LDS Church explicitly takes no position on capital punishment, endorses reasonable means for extending human life, and opposes euthanasia except as the result of removing artificial life support. These and other LDS Church public policy statements can be viewed at newsroom.lds.org.