“The tolerance of intolerance is cowardice,” but the intolerance of the intolerance of intolerance is expected

Ayaan Hirsi Ali was in the news last week when Brandeis reversed their decision to give her an honorary doctorate for her work. Many people have discussed the ridiculousness of Brandeis’ response, which is either deception or woeful ignorance. I’m not interested in those issues as much as I am in the justifications of those who argue it was the right thing to do. A blogger on altmuslim claimed that Ali promotes the same intolerance that she claims to be fighting against. He also noted that although Ali’s arguments as treated as scholarship, “her words and arguments are not academic or scholarly.” These points deserve further examination.

Intolerance is an accusation that hurts the feelings of many a liberal, for they also use it liberally. It is most often backed up with the unspoken presumption that one should never want to be labeled as intolerant. Yet it is a poor definition of tolerance that says it is a quality to be valued for its own sake. In other words, if one is to make an argument for tolerance, it must be justified not on the basis of tolerance itself, but on some other fundamental value, such as that of life, freedom, etc. Few of us would suggest being tolerant of those who commit egregious acts of violence (unless, of course, these are committed against animals). There are plenty of things we can and should be intolerant of (corporate business practices, disregard for environmental destruction, etc.), so long as our intolerance is not accompanied with physical violence or the impending threat of violence against individuals.

It is, as this blogger implies, the hallmark of a scholarly or academic argument to carefully separate “bad” acts from “good” religion. In fact, scholars of religion could often be the unintended subjects of Ali’s comment that “Tolerance of intolerance is cowardice.” They join much of the world in pleading with folks not to print cartoons or make films that might cause offense. There are some who systematically dissociate acts of violence from their religious context, even when overt. And this is seemingly well-intentioned. The blogger contends that “her approach is not driven by an academic or scholarly need to help the oppressed,” but it is because Ali does not only walk the careful line of disinterested scholarship that she has a passion for change.

If a freethinker criticizes religion, if he or she suggests that the world would be better off without “x” religious tradition, he or she is not insulting God. To the freethinker there is no divinity, and there cannot be one in the public sphere. In the public sphere, there is only humanity. To be sure, the religious may believe that the divine rules public life as well, but this cannot be a community motivation if we desire a free society.

Nor is the freethinker insulting a tradition. There are no traditions we can assess beyond their embodiment in assemblages of people and buildings that make them up. In the public sphere, there are only people, and these people must live with each other. I’m sure there are thousands, perhaps millions, that are offended by the words of Ali. There are also thousands that are offended by the words written in suppposedly holy texts. Are there as many of the latter group? Perhaps not, but does it really matter? It is the hallmark of a free society to be able to offend. Offense and intolerance, insofar as they describe feelings and words, are a signal that an open society is at work.

I’m not talking about allowing people to scream “Fire” in a crowded theater. I’m arguing that suggesting the world would be better off without a particular tradition, no matter how improbable that may seem, is a proposition that should not (and will not) be shut down by claims of intolerance. In other words, it is intolerant, and that is good. It is not intolerant for its own sake, but because of the connections between religion and violence that are evidenced by Ali’s own life. The common refrain that such-and-such particular practice is not actually encouraged in a particular text is no argument against the historical and cultural connection between religion and suffering, particarly considered in an impoverished political and economic context. The point is not that there is a tidy equation, that violence and oppression would magically disappear if religion lost its hold, which is the point that defenders seize upon. I would even argue that such a direct attack is an inefficient approach to the problem, but it does not automatically invalidate the correlation she suggests by adhering the label intolerance.

In 19th century America, there were once mean slave owners and nice slave owners as well, and there were even perhaps willing and unwilling slaves. Many of these men and women, I’m sure, were “good” people. Few of us now would argue that the institution of slavery should have been kept around because there were quite a few folks for whom the system worked quite well, who never hurt anyone and generally got along just fine, or even benefited from its perpetuation. In retrospect that seems silly to consider, but it certainly wasn’t for many at the time. It is the hope of Ali and others, I believe, that we will someday look back at religious traditions the same way, wondering how we justified its abuses for so long.

Of course, the case of religion is different in many ways. It would be as deplorable to prohibit the individual practice of religion as it is to mandate it. But the individual practice of religion is a maximum, not a minimum threshold, and until it is certain that all individuals are aware of their options for understanding the world outside of religious tradition, we are still far above the maximum threshold of individual practice as a basis for tolerance.

It may be best in the end that Ayaan Hirsi Ali did not receive an honorary doctorate from Brandeis, because it is not academic to be so bold, at least in the field of religion. But it would be a welcome addition if more were.


Anti-Christian Bias in Academia is Responsible for Religious Bigotry. Part Two…

I posted recently about Rebecca Hamilton’s blog commentary on George Yancey’s research about anti-Christian bias among the well-educated. Hamilton’s concluded that anti-Christianity is widespread in the higher education system and that this is responsible for increasing religious bigotry. Although her reaction is inflammatory, her sentiment that there is a connection between higher education and loss of religious belief seems accurate. I disagree, however, with her suggestion that the higher education system is responsible for religious bigotry.

Speaking anecdotally, I would most likely still be a practicing Christian had I not gone back to school to earn a graduate degree. I don’t think that I once experienced any sort of unjustified intolerance toward Christianity from any professor. My experience of deconversion, insofar as education was a part of it, came largely from wrestling with texts that challenged the historical and ideological viability of the Christian tradition. Since I studied religion directly, it would be difficult for me to comment on how much anti-Christian bias a student in the sciences, for example, might absorb. There is a fine line for some between being challenged and being unfairly discriminated against. One of my main goals as a teacher is to encourage students to question their long-held world views and expose inconsistencies in thought and practice. Usually just exposing students to a variety of other world views and teaching them to think critically is sufficient to provoke crises. For a Christian (as well as most other students), college can thus be a complex existential experience. Many make it through relatively unscathed, but a sufficient enough number do not that it is a common practice to go a Christian school to avoid the conflict.

But why would there be, or seem to be, anti-Christian bias in the academy? For the same reason that there would seem to be an anti-educational bias in Christianity. The ideals of Christianity conflict with the ideals of humanistic or scientific inquiry. Christianity gives an answer to the question of life and living—God—that other forms of inquiry cannot neither accept or ignore. To be certain there are many individuals who live out their lives maintaining a balance between sometimes contradictory world views, but they do so by compromising in one or more areas. The extent to which these institutions—Christianity and (public) higher education—mix is the extent to which one or the other cedes ground. And that is not a bad thing. But its effect is negated if one or both parties must pretend that either position is neutral or irrelevant. In other words, discrimination and self-bias are inbuilt in both higher education and Christianity. These self-protective aspects cannot be removed without compromising the integrity of their structures.

What this means to me is that we should not lament that these systems conflict or attempt to neutralize their clashes. Rather, if we are searching for answers, the best way forward, a better society, etc., we should highlight points of conflict as points of leverage toward common truths. I realize that sounds platitudinous, but it is surely a better step forward than the wary pluralism of much liberal doctrine.

We must make a distinction between the ethical treatment of those who espouse world views different from our own and challenging those world views. They are not the same thing, yet very few can resist eliding one into the other. In our rush toward fixity, toward systematization, we deny the instances to better understand ourselves and our world. These instances will necessarily involve giving and receiving offense, but their rewards, I have decided, exceed the discomfort they cause.


Anti-Christian Bias in Academia is Responsible for Religious Bigotry. Part One…

Rebecca Hamilton, a member of the Oklahoma House of Representatives who also blogs at Patheos, recently posted that anti-Christian bias in academia is “one of the major reasons for the sudden increase in religious bigotry and Christian bashing in America today.” For evidence, she points to a talk given in March by Dr. George Yancey promoting his forthcoming book, Too Many Christians, Not Enough Lions.

It’s clear that Hamilton is drawing conclusions from the data that support her prior conclusions about the status of Christianity in America. I’ve talked elsewhere about the Christian construction of adversity as persecution. With that said, I was not surprised at the claim that there is anti-Christian bias in higher academia. For that reason, I had to watch the video to see how accurately Hamilton represented Yancey’s study.

There are gaps in her interpretation (although to her credit, these were put there by Yancey). First, the seemingly most damning surveys he completed were not of those working in higher education, but those with an advanced degree. This suggests that the survey says more about the correlation between levels of education and anti-religious bias, a much broader spectrum than just those in academia. Many other studies have suggested a correlation between wealth/education and a corresponding lack of religiosity (except in the United States). However, it also questions Hamilton’s viral conception of anti-Christianity being inculcated into the young by anti-Christians and spread throughout society. It means something different if religious deconversion is the result of education in general rather than simply the bias of educators.

At the end of her article, Hamilton laments that Yancey doesn’t say that “to try to make assumptions about the intelligence of a group of people based on something like religious preference is illogical in the first place.” As I watched the video, though, sociologist Yancey does suggest that religious background is a factor among others that shouldn’t matter in the hiring of a candidate. Both seem to share the belief that religious affiliation should not be relevant to faculty employment in higher education. I want to suggest, not that religious affiliation should be relevant, but that it is relevant for employment in higher education (as well as elsewhere, but perhaps less so in other areas).

There are at least two ways to examine the relevance of religious affiliation for employment in higher education. The first may just be a clarification. There is a difference between the legality of a distinction and its significance. It is fairly well-known, and Yancey makes clear, that one cannot ask questions about religious affiliation in the hiring process. Yancey’s survey question asked only whether it would make a difference if one did find out about a candidate’s religious affiliation. The affirmative responses he received seem to justify the law’s existence. However, as with any law, its creation of a blanket prohibition does not entail that all discrimination—in the morally neutral sense of the word—based on religion is irrelevant. The law is in existence precisely because there are cases in which religion carries undue weight, becoming a nearly exclusive determinant of the appropriateness of a candidate for a position. Unfortunately, to prevent unwarranted and inappropriate discrimination, the law hinders all distinctions.

The position that religion is irrelevant for hiring purposes is also interesting because it contradicts the importance of religion to the candidate. Right now the cards are stacked in favor of the potential employee. But the extent to which religion is a defining portion of the individual’s identity is also the extent of its relevance to the hiring committee. In other words, part of the reason Yancey’s survey showed that individuals were more likely to count religious affiliation against fundamentalists and evangelicals but not Catholics was because the former groups are perceived to be more likely to “bring religion to work,” so to speak. The extent to which these systems come into conflict is significant to all parties.

I was disappointed in the open-ended responses in Yancey’s second survey of “cultural progressives.” Many respondents suggested that Christians should be thrown to the lions, a riff on the ancient Christian apologist Tertullian’s protest against Christian treatment by the Roman majority. The apparent ferocity of the statements might be tempered by the protection of anonymity the survey offered, and thus any correlations between the sentiments of these respondents and corresponding actions are dubious. Insofar as I understood the statements, though—without a clear understanding of the question asked by Yancey or the context—they erode any sort of ethical or moral high ground the “culturally progressive” respondents might have over whatever construction of Christianity they have in mind.

I’m glad, then, that these respondents can no more or less represent “academics” as a whole than fundamentalists or extremists can represent Christians as a whole. However, their existence cannot be denied. There is bigotry in Christianity as well as academia, and the key is not to generalize—”Academics are anti-religious,” or “Christians are ignorant”—but to examine the specific cases and their relation to the institutions as whole. To what extent or in what ways does Christianity promote uncritical thinking? To what extent or in what ways does higher education inculcate a devaluation of religious traditions? These are questions worth exploring to exemplify both the significance of social and institutional construction and the heterogeneity of interpretation, the diversity of behavior within categories we would prefer to think of as homogeneous.

None of this is to say I think that laws attempting to prevent employers from religious discrimination should be removed. I think they serve to prevent unwarranted discrimination. It is also hypocritical to hold that, while folks like Hamilton show through their writing that Christianity is their primary identity factor, others must pretend as if that identity is nonetheless irrelevant concerning their employment. When I was a Christian in the higher education system, my religious affiliation certainly made a difference in my research, even though I tried to pretend—like others—that it did not.

I haven’t discussed the conflicts particularly between religious identity and the higher education system, which are the most significant factors Hamilton (and Yancey) are reacting to. I’ll save that for later.

What do you think? Should/does religious affiliation matter for employment? Why and from what perspective?


Smart people can be religious too, can’t they?

Being charitable to the positions, beliefs, and arguments of others is a hallmark of thorough thinking, and it is a good marker to determine the quality of online content. Blogs and comments are often dominated by clear but one-sided opinions on a particular subject, which allows them to gain a quick following by confirming the opinions of their own group. If one’s goal is to start and maintain a community of like-minded people for the benefits a feeling of belonging provides, this is effective. Usually, however, such blogs are constructed as if intending to speak to those on the other side of the fence, in which case their manner of argument is poor and ineffective, because, in the language of Stephen Covey, they seek first to be understood before they understand.

I cringe at these types of arguments, regardless of what side of the fence they land, because they pretend to be something they are not. Being charitable doesn’t mean not making claims of value or judgement; it simply means a considered investigation of the side you are arguing against, putting it in the best possible light. Unfortunately, academic training seems to make one prone to the opposite problem, being so charitable that one is doing little other than summarizing the state of affairs. This may be helpful if the greater public is unaware of a factor that may change the nature of a discourse, and often it functions as a plea for moderation against the more one-sided folks. Only rarely, at least in my field, do scholars make challenging claims. It’s simply the way we were raised.

I would like to think that people who study religion have to be more charitable than most, because they are often dealing with the impact of beliefs and actions that are self-founding; in other words, they cannot be verified or justified by outside reasoning. I have come to wonder, though, whether touting the pluralism of religious scholarship is not simply bad faith. Perhaps scholars use arguments against bias to avoid upsetting their audience, or even more critically, to avoid upsetting themselves. I know this was true in my case. I survived as a Christian for at least two years only by maintaining a separation between my religious life and my academic life, even though the latter deals almost exclusively with the religion I practiced. It eventually became an untenable separation for me, the exact reasons for which remain a mystery, especially as many others are able to operate in both worlds, the religious and the academic.

Indeed, I have had numerous conversations with friends who are believers about the fact that there are many intelligent people, many intelligent scholars even, who hold very strong religious beliefs. It may seem silly even to have that conversation, but the nature of the majority of the discourse, in which atheists think Christians are stupid, or at least Christians think atheists think they are stupid, and Christians think atheists are all the devil’s servants destined for hell, or at least atheists think Christians think they are, makes it a practically inevitable conversation. In addition, because I quit religion while in higher education, friends often assume I think that my current position is the “smarter” one.

Many different names come up in the conversation about smart Christians, with C. S. Lewis always high on the list. I’ll return to him another time, but I came across another brief argument by a Christian academic that reinforces my contention that one cannot justify religious belief from a non-theological scholarly methodology. Gary Cutting, a philosopher from Notre Dame, wrote an opinion piece “On Being Catholic” in the New York Times, where he says, “I try to articulate a position that I expect many fellow Catholics will find congenial and that non-Catholics (even those who reject all religion) may recognize as an intellectually respectable stance.” What follows is part personal testimony and part justification of a liberal approach to an orthodox tradition.

Cutting argues, as liberal Christians often do, that while the church may not provide fundamental truths, it is a helpful tool for understanding the human condition. While he doesn’t go into detail here, the “tools” that other Christians cite are primarily explanatory ones, such as man having a sinful nature, which then explains why people do bad things, reinforcing the idea that if there were only more Christians, there would be less evil in the world. Cutting also aligns with other liberal Christians in highlighting the ethic of love as a “powerful force for good” and the lens through which Biblical teachings should be interpreted. He anticipates the counterargument that he is promoting a watered-down version of the faith by contending that the Catholicism itself makes room for such diversity of belief.

None of this is a clear justification of his belief as a Catholic or a reconciliation with his life as an academic. In the end, he offers two reasons why not to abandon the flawed institution of the Catholic Church. First, the Catholic tradition is, as he says, “the only place I feel at home. Simply to renounce it would be…to deny part of my moral core.” This is where the heart of Cutting’s argument lies. He can’t give up religion because it would be giving up part of himself. I understand his argument and have felt that way myself, but it is not the intellectually respectable stance he claimed it would be. It is rather a conversation-stopper, an argument that maintains a foundational ground without question out of (a very real) fear.

By holding both that the church is flawed and yet that its ideals are right or that its heart is in the right place, Cutting keeps those flaws at a distance from himself. Yet he is left with two choices. One would be to articulate more clearly what are those beliefs that constitute his moral core and why exactly they are best served in Christianity. If simply because that is the tradition he grew up in, fine, but that is not the reasonable argument he is making. The other option would be to seriously question whether the flaws in the Church are also deeply embedded in his moral core as well. The change in my life, from a place where I felt like Cutting to where I am now, was facilitated by the realization that my moral worldview was not, in practice, supported by the theological underpinnings I had been told it was. It was then that I realized my moral core was tied more to the particularities of my social world—which did include Christianity— and my dispositions rather than a divine Creator.

Cutting’s second reason not to abandon his belief is contingent upon the first. He doesn’t want to abandon his faith to the conservatives. Again, I recognize the position, and it is one I held for a period of time. The lines are not as clear here. I am not willing to say, as many nonreligious folks do, that all religion does more harm than good. So I understand the sentiment of wanting to reclaim a rich tradition from seeming perversions. But it could also be that the unwillingness of “liberal” religious folks to abandon their tradition helps maintain the space that allows conservative and extreme factions to enact their violence against others who think differently. Think for a moment what would happen if all liberal Christians abandoned their Christianity for another system that was centered around love and morality, but without the theological underpinnings? I know it’s far-fetched, but where would that leave conservative factions? Without enough support to survive.

Though Cutting claims Christianity is not the only way to truth, I don’t see him taking the route I suggested. But that means that he and others like him, have a lot more work to do than making generalizations about “love” and “my belief,” which excludes nearly all of what religious traditions have historically been about. His argument is not justifiable in the manner he proposed it in. Rather, it is evasive precisely where it needs to be specific. It takes for granted both the theological propositions and the social conditions required for him to profess such a faith. I don’t think it is necessarily impossible to make a reasoned argument that takes these factors into serious account, but I have yet to see one.


What do we owe our parents? A values question…

I like the latest values question from Libby Anne at LoveJoyFeminism. Between she and Daniel Fincke at Camels with Hammers, there have already been questions on civic responsibility, teaching children about sexuality, and the obligation to punish for moral failure. For this question, she refers to a recent article in Slate that documents the difficulties and complexities of attempting reconciliation with difficult parents, parents who may have been abusive or neglectful. In those cases, the question of what is owed may seem misplaced. I think it is a good question, though, because it addresses the attempt to qualify or quantify a felt connection between parents and children, a connection that is present in its presence or its absence. Why is it that, good relationship or bad, we feel obliged to “deal” with the relationship with our parents? Is it an unspoken social mandate to have a good relationship? Is there a biological connection that we must nurture?

In my personal experience, I feel particularly indebted to my parents, in the way of a wholly positive gratitude. In comparison to the stories in the Slate article and my perception of the family relationships of those around me, I have felt very lucky indeed. In the past, I would have attributed their good job to a Christian influence; now I think they deserve more of the credit. As I’ve mentioned in analogous situations, it does them more credit to isolate the unique variables of their parenting, their care and concern for my upbringing and general well-being, encouragement of my strengths and support of my weaknesses, rather than the degree to which they followed Christian principles. Others have tried to follow a religious model and come up short, at least in the eyes of their offspring. I know that my parents likely sought to ground their parenting in a Christian model, just as I did when my son was younger. Yet I know from my own parenting experience that I feel a sense of obligation to him as well, often in spite of his actions. I want him to value our relationship not by the extent to which I adhered to a universal set of rules, but the way that I attempted to seek the best for him, in spite of not knowing exactly what that is.

I owe my parents a debt that will not be able to repay. There are several reasons for this. One is that to attempt to quantify it would cheapen it. More than that, though, and despite my particularly fortunate circumstances, the sense of obligation to parents is a microcosm of our response to being in the world. This sense of obligation is one we are uncomfortable with; modeling our existential lives after our economic ones, we would prefer to have our debts paid. Obligations to others are treated the same way. We are uncomfortable with debt and often see remaining obligated as a weakness. Yet simply our being born into the world entails a whole set of debts that we have incurred before we have the ability to choose otherwise. Of course, those are not unique debts, in the sense that they are common to humanity. This does not lessen the significance of the debt taking its unique form in the individual.

That debt takes its first and most concrete form in the parent, the one charged biologically and socially with enabling a child to survive, and hopefully, to thrive. Most of us can claim the first, though not all the second. What I am saying, though, is that we ought to face our sense of indebtedness in spite of its particular contours in our own lives. We deny this fundamental relationship to the world, obligation, at our own peril. I imagine that many feel that they owe their parents nothing for the poor treatment they themselves received. In terms of financial, emotional, or physical support, that might be accurate. However, I would argue it does not work to discharge a debt simply on those terms. In fact, frustration over a failed relationship with one’s parents is perhaps a greater lesson that obligation is not part of a transaction, but a part of our being. We are thrust into circumstances and situations in which we can neither control the manifold variables or the outcome. We bear the consequences of the decisions of others, just as others bear the consequences of ours. The point is not to neutralize our own position in the game, to pay all our debts and not make anyone indebted to us, but to enter into relationships with a full awareness of the responsibility that just being alive implies, a responsibility that, if avoided, manifests in a repetition of the same patterns we regret in others.

So how should the obligation we have to our parents be manifest? It depends. If the relationship is healthy and desirable, it can manifest in the same interactions as any other loving relationship. If unhealthy, there may not be a relationship at all, and it may be better that way. In any case, though, the idea of obligation requires a willingness to face the fact that none of us are independent. Americans enjoy the image of the self-made man or woman, and particularly in cases when individuals seem to have triumphed over difficult odds, which may have included poor familial relationships. Even these folks didn’t make it without help, and no one wins a prize for shunning relationships the most. We cannot escape the complex web of our interconnection with our environment and those within it. Rather than trying to just discharge or ignore it, we would do well to embrace our indebtedness and move forward because of or in spite of it.