“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?