The documentary “This Divided State,” created around Michael Moore’s infamous visit to UVU, shows a young professor posing hard and forceful questions to Sean Hannity. Because he speaks against Hannity’s beliefs, the professor is quickly quieted, ignored and even booed by the crowd before he can finish his sentence.
As astonishing and disrespectful as the Utah crowd’s action was, this is not the first time Dennis Potter, UVU professor of philosophy and religion, faced antagonism and conflict for his views. Potter is known across campus for his fierce liberal opinions and radical proceedings. Yet, while he stands far apart from many of those that inhabit this state, his genial love for people and his appreciation for intellect have placed him as this week’s hero. Here is what he had to say.
Q: Why did you become a professor?
A: While in high school, I became interested in philosophical questions concerning political and religious issues. While serving my LDS mission, my interest in the philosophy of religion became more focused and I decided to study philosophy upon my return. I was interested in exploring some of the more radical aspects of Mormon theology within a philosophical context.
Moreover, I became increasingly convinced that a proper intellectual education of every citizen is necessary for a democratic society. Becoming a professor of philosophy was a natural choice.
Q: Tell me about your experience working as the Mormon studies coordinator.
A: I was raised Mormon and so my work in the philosophy of religion has been informed by that perspective. It was natural for me to jump at the chance to help in organizing the newborn field of Mormon Studies. I also helped to found the Society of Mormon Philosophy and Theology (www.smpt.org). In both ventures, we have endeavored to bring diverse voices together in civil scholarly dialogue.
We have been modestly successful in this regard, but there is still work to be done. Although I no longer consider myself Mormon, I still appreciate its contribution to the larger religious dialogue in the U.S. I hope academics continue to take it more seriously, and I am heartened by the development of Mormon Studies programs at highly respected institutions such as Claremont Graduate School. UVU was on the cutting edge of this trend toward the academic study of the Mormon religion and I count myself lucky to be a small part of that.
Q: You had success as the coordinator. What is your greatest failure?
A: I regret that I have alienated some people at UVU, especially some conservatives, by my rather assertive approach to public discourse. I hope to be able to dialogue with those on the other side of spectrum more in the future. I hope to be able to find common ground without sacrificing my deepest convictions.
Q: What are your passions outside of teaching?
A: I love the mountains. I do endurance mountain bike races. I really enjoyed the 12 hours of Sundance race this year. I like to push myself to the limit physically. Riding my bike gives me a chance to meditate and reconnect to myself and nature spiritually.
Q: If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
A: I hope for a society based on the principles of reason and love rather than irrational fear and alienation. Cooperation is essential to the continued survival of the human species. Realizing that we are a part of nature rather than above it is essential to avert the coming environmental crisis.
Q: If there was one particular message that you could get across to students, faculty and staff what would it be?
A: Question everything and think critically. Reasoning is at the core of human intersubjectivity and cooperation. Without it we will not survive.