12/19/14

No-Filter Living

Nearly once a day I experience a sort of emotional flood that is constituted by the absolute immensity of the world’s problems and my utter inadequacy at even beginning to deal with them. When I experience these feelings, which might be brought on by climate change, cruelty to animals, blind consumerism, discrimination against the homeless, etc., I invariably also reflect on the consistency or inconsistency of these feelings. Have I always been like this?

The short answer is no, because in the past I had a life filter. This filter made it much easier to pursue day-to-day existence because I could justify my place in the world. I was a lowly and insignificant sinner that nonetheless God found valuable enough to preserve for eternity. I never thought much about the practical implications of this scenario; I was too focused on the supernatural ones. But the practical ones are much more important.

This filter drastically limited my concern in a few ways. By focusing my primary concern on my own insignificance and God’s paradoxical fascination with my individuality, my beliefs implicitly assured me that everyone was as self-focused as I was and that this was the way it was. It was not desirable by any means, but it kept shaping the sense of personal guilt that necessitated the existence of a divine being to solve.

It also shaped everything else in the world that wasn’t “me.” First, it told me that these things weren’t fundamentally my problem. Disasters, pollution, deforestation, and factory farming among others were not things in my power to change, and God had them in control anyway, so why duplicate the worry? Any problem in the world was up for negotiation based on this paradigm, but the anthropocentrism of Christian belief removed most non-human concerns from the picture.

The problems of humanity were indeed problems, but as I’ve mentioned before the problems were not poverty or hunger or preventable disease but unaccounted sin. Therefore the Christian diagnoses only one primary problem, sin, with myriad different faces. Once it has diagnosed, it prescribes, and the prescription is as uniform as the diagnosis: salvation.

Here’s the interesting thing, though. I’m come to believe that it’s not the sense of guilt that is wrong. That guilt really isn’t imposed by religion; religion just capitalizes on it, controls it and then promises to dull the pain. That guilt, that primordial “sin” is a constitutive part of being alive.

On this view, institutional religion has the problem fundamentally backwards. In its efficient manner, the institution notes that it is much more practical, effective, and satisfying (to the individual) to treat the symptoms than to perform the endless labor of searching for causes and addressing root economic, political, and social problems. But alleviating the pain of “sin” through the tantalizing promise of eternal existence removes the consistent invariable link we have to the world, that sense of guilt, of accountability for the injustice we face.

We are cowards in that regard, and often justifiably so. But we have an addiction that justifies our cowardice. One cannot expect the religious adherent to behave according to the interests of broader secular society. Why? Because the believer faces the constant concern of their drug being diluted. Follow this process. The individual experiences feelings of helplessness, aloneness, inadequacy, fear, inability, etc., and seeks a remedy. The religious tradition diagnoses these as problems that can and should be remedied and provides a “pill” for it. This pill, however, comes with a long list of instructions and counter indications, one of which is that the accommodation of other treatment frameworks, or even less alternative understandings of the nature of the problem, will lessen the effect of the pill, or perhaps prevent it from working entirely. Fear of withdrawals from addiction are strong, usually strong enough to override external concerns or alternate ways of thinking. If one drug solves all your problems, then it should solve everyone else’s as well.

It is an uncomfortable thing to recognize the extent to which you are not only inextricable from the world in which you live, but accountable for its ills. When I teach ethics, I find that student beliefs about the world are not really motivated by a sense of right and wrong, even though they will profess maxims and truths as if they are the source of their ethical behavior. Rather, their views are often shaped by their perceived ability to do something about the issue. The more distant they feel from an issue, the less able to grasp it, the more students are likely to utter phrases such as, “That’s just the way it is,” or, “It’s our nature.”

When dealing with poverty and the question of social supports like welfare, the concern invariably arises that there are those who take advantage of the system. It is difficult for us to imagine how those, when provided with some modicum of financial and/or social support, don’t immediately throw away their addictions and coping strategies and throw themselves wholeheartedly into becoming productive citizens like the rest of us know we are. Yet we are abusers too. We abuse in a much more socially acceptable way. Comparatively we may do no great harm, but few do, on their own. The system does not brook dissent or difference well. The difference between the lower and the upper echelons of society is that the latter have elaborate and well-established institutional means to mask their exploitation of societal norms, and the former do not.

We are intolerant of substance abuse in impoverished communities because it has no veil to hide behind. You earn the right to alter your consciousness only to the extent that you can lie to yourself about what it is and convince society to go along with the ruse. Which is a more powerful drug, the one that allows you to escape your problems for a day, or the one that rearranges the entire world in your image and eliminates your concern for things beyond yourself? Perhaps in the end, they all perform the same function.

I note this all because if we hadn’t the institutional support of a conflation of symptom and cause, more would be able, in the rawness of pain and obligation, to encounter contemporary issues and work toward effective solutions. Not only would we understand symptoms and causes appropriately, we would not be side-tracked with protecting our own addictions, and mistaking them for the solutions.

07/24/14

They’re Right. The Debate Really is About Religion.

About 30 miles from where I live, I drove past a sign informing me there’s a Hobby Lobby coming to my neighborhood soon. And just when I was getting ready to put it in the back of my mind, now that the initial fury has died down. I can do that, of course, because it doesn’t directly affect me. (You can’t always tell that someone is directly affected by a case just because they have strong views on it, but a sure fire way to tell someone has no interest is the comment, “I don’t see why it’s such a big deal.”) So I’ve been thinking more about the question of religious influence this week.

I’ve also been reading a book called How Good People Make Tough Choices for potential use in the classroom. In one section the author, Rushworth Kidder, uses the public debate over abortion to make the case that each side is closer to the other than it thinks. He contends that the debate here, as in many other cases, is not really over values but over definitions, particularly over the question of when life begins. He asks us to imagine a debate between articulate and thoughtful folks on either extreme of the debate. Certainly they both value life. Neither side supports murder, both value the concept of freedom of choice, both value children, and neither side thinks disposing of unwanted children is an acceptable societal practice. Both also value women and their choice, at least as a matter of principle. Both think that law should be followed and unjust laws should be changed. Most on both sides, he thinks, probably even agree that religion does and should play a role.

As mentioned, this all points to the idea that this debate is not really over values. Life for one side begins at conception, which is fixed at some (early) indeterminate point, and for the other at gestation, which is also fixed at a (later) indeterminate point. The debate is also unlikely to be decide on those grounds because of the indeterminacy of the evidence, just as with our difficulty of deciding exactly when someone is dead.

He almost won me over. But then he continues, “if the pro-life side were suddenly convinced that life had not yet begun by this or that week, they would have no more difficulty allowing the woman an abortion at that time than they would in letting her decide to clip her nails, since they feel strongly about individual choice” (98). Kidder is absolutely right about the notion that there is much more common ground among all parties than is typically granted in the media.  And he is also right that if we grant pro-life advocates were truly convinced—hypothetically, since he’s not advocating one side or the other—then they would have no issue with terminating pregnancy at that stage. The likelihood against that happening, however, is astonishingly high.

The issue that Hobby Lobby is the latest iteration of is not really about abortion, or women’s rights, but religion. I have to agree with advocates of “religious freedom” on this point, and the debate would certainly be more focused if all parties focused on religion as the beginning and end of the debate. Maybe initially it was about the actual content of the debate, but that has long since ceased to be the case.

Here’s where this begins to apply to Hobby Lobby. It is increasingly clear that many of the drugs the owners of Hobby Lobby disagree with do not actually cause abortions, and thereby do not terminate life, but that has not, as of yet, changed many minds on the side of the defense. (Lest one thinks the weight of the evidence only needs to settle in a little more, one only needs to think of human impact on the global climate, or evolution, about which there is overwhelming evidence, and yet disagreement falling uncoincidentally along similar lines.) Evidence is not a clear determinant of the case.

Let us just say however, that sufficient and justifiable ambiguity remains for the owners of Hobby Lobby not to change their minds yet. And let us say that we want to protect people from being discriminated against on the basis of their religion as well as their sex, race, class, body type, gender, ability, etc. And let us say that we want to allow as much latitude as possible to exercise freedom within those identity categories or others. These are all good things. How do we maneuver through this ethically?

The concept of discrimination may provide a way forward. What makes discrimination problematic, what makes it something that we societally seek protection from, is that it is action based upon an irrational judgment (prejudice); in other words, a judgement that is irrelevant to the case at hand. When this discrimination is sustained, it becomes institutionalized as oppression, and that oppression is masked as cultural norms, nature, “the way of things,” and as such hides its arbitrary heart. But we have gradually seen through (although certainly not eliminated) such legitimacy in the past and begun to expose it for the façade it is.

So if you want, don’t call it discrimination. Call it irrational judgment. Either way, it results in an ethical failure. For this reason we should not limit the access to guns on the basis of race. We also should not limit the access to cultural and artistic enrichment on the basis of socio-economic class. We should not limit the access to land to build a church (or a mosque) on the basis of religion. And we also should not limit access to contraceptives or birth control on the basis of sex. All of these forms of discrimination have to an extent been institutionalized based upon arbitrary beliefs, and their insidiousness lies in their power to coerce the implausible scenario they portray into existence.

What Kidder fails to recognize, then, is the uniqueness of religion in its ability not just to supplement, but to replace ethics. Earlier he notes, “Worship and faith, combined with charity and mercy, are powerful contributors to the health and well-being of our communities.” This has indeed been true, but the opposite is also true, that religion is a powerful contributor to the sickness and destruction of well-being of communties. If and when this is combined with the notion that there are millions of folks that somehow have similar human values irrespective of religion, one is more inclined to think that ethics and religion are not the same, and that there are broader, more inclusive, bases upon which to judge and protect the individuals in our communities. Although we protect religious freedom, although we understand the depth of its historical tradition and its far-reaching influence in America, we cannot allow religion—again, in an irrational relation to the facts at hand—to be used as a means to circumscribe the rights of certain individuals, against their will, when we have established them as rights of citizenship.

To be clear, the point is not to reverse some dangerous trend toward increasing religious discrimination in America, at least in the long view. Discrimination based on religious (Protestant Christian) belief has always been a part of the American heritage. Neither is the point to eliminate religion of any sort from society as a whole, at least by force. That too would be immoral. The point is to continue progressing toward limiting religious privilege in the public sphere. One way to do that is to make clear the distinction between religion and moral/ethical value.

There can be broad overlaps between ethics and religion, but they are not synonymous. In response to Socrates’ question to Euthyphro, “It is loved by the gods because it is pious,” and not the other way around. Where that leaves ethics and how ethics can be valuable if not rooted in the supernatural is a question that keeps many holding to a causal connection between the two, usually because it is how they were first encountered. That there is no necessary connection between religion and ethics is important because it removes the justification of a distinctive religious identity to trump or receive preferential treatment, or exceptions, over any other social identity in the public sphere.

The wild card in this scenario is Christians who disagree with the position of Hobby Lobby’s ownership. These Christians are key stakeholders in the drive to separate “good” religion from “conservative” religion in order to protect their beliefs. Insofar as religion and state remain separate, this position may be defensible. When the line becomes blurred, though, the attempt to dismiss the issue as a case of bad religion or about something else besides religion obscures bigger problems, including the attempt to conflate ethics and religion and the irrational basis of judgment, at least in this case. What is one to do, who both identifies as Christian and believes that corporations should not be able to limit the access of their employees to contraception and birth control on religious grounds? I don’t have a good answer for that, but I’m convinced that it is these folks who will increasingly be crucial in debates over religion in America and globally.

06/26/13

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.

06/24/13

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?

03/11/13

You Can’t Buy Flowers if You Don’t Get Right with Jesus

The owner of a flower shop in Washington state recently denied service to a gay couple who asked to use her services for their wedding ceremony. She told the customer that she couldn’t help in the wedding because of her relationship with Jesus Christ. According to the news story, the florist had served the customers for years, even as the couple had sent flowers to each other, but declined to participate in the wedding because she believes in exclusively heterosexual marriage. The customer was shocked, and the story gained popularity when he told about his experience on Facebook.

The situation has  legal, commercial, and ideological aspects, and much of the controversy in these situations is not “discriminating” between them. The clearest evidence of this is in the term ‘discrimination,’ evoked in this and nearly all other cases like it. At least one lawyer says that this is a violation of Washington’s law against discrimination, while the store owner claims she does not discriminate. She is of course responding to the issue in legal terms, because she is clearly discriminating, in that she decided not to provide service based on a given set of criteria; namely, a normative understanding of marriage. Of course, neither of them knows whether the case involves legal discrimination, since the law has no power until its judgment, and a case hasn’t been made formally yet. This is an interesting point in itself, that according to the report the couple is not certain whether they will pursue a case, but there are certainly those who want to use cases like these to advance a principle. There’s no problem with this necessarily, but it would take determination for the couple to decide not to take action. In any case, discrimination is something we all use in our daily decision making, and is necessarily the case in terms of religious belief.

In terms of the commercial aspects of the case, one could make an argument either that the florist should not be in business if she is not going to provide equal service, or that the couple should go somewhere else if they have a problem with her treatment. In a purely capitalistic sense, it makes little sense that either the store owner should refuse the transaction or that the customers should force the issue when they could receive better service elsewhere. My guess is that the story will not end well for the florist, because those customers who are offended will stop giving her business, and those who give her moral support will not likely actually support her business. But in terms of the woman’s religious convictions or the legality of the issue, the commercial aspects are irrelevant.

In terms of the moral or religious justification, there is more logic in the florist’s actions than she is given credit for. For the vast majority of Christians, their beliefs do not require them to hate gay people, though it’s clear that a vocal minority seem to. Most are told and attempt to make a distinction between “sinner” and “sin,” a distinction that is not fully appreciated by outsiders, to whom the florist’s actions seem erratic or contradictory. She feels free to employ and befriend gay people (in theory—chances are she doesn’t have an extensive list of gay friends), but participating in their wedding is different. Why? Well, typically the florist’s level of involvement at a wedding goes beyond preparing the arrangements in the shop and handing them to the customer. Often it means being onsite and helping in preparation for the ceremony. Whether that is the case or not, it becomes an issue because she (like the couple) views the ceremony as sacred, as involving powers higher than herself. (I have no idea whether the couple is religious or not. They may simply want the civil benefits that marriage offers, but it likely has more significance. Either way, they have entrusted the state with giving their relationship a significance that it would not otherwise have.) Marriage is a relationship with important religious significance in Christianity, as well as other traditions.

Those who would claim that the woman has been deceived by her preacher into discriminating against gays miss the bigger picture. It is not a misinterpretation of Christianity to be against gay marriage. A normative understanding of heterosexual marriage has been the dominant interpretation for the tradition’s entire history. It certainly behooves the religious hierarchy to reinforce beliefs that keep their congregants reliant upon their services (e.g., that marriage is sacred and that marriages should be religious in nature), but this issue extends throughout history. Is it possible that Christianity could be interpreted in a way that makes it more favorable to gay couples? Yes, but it hasn’t been. The situation is not solved by taking a liberal stance that asks, “What’s the big deal?”

The point is that someone loses in this situation. Either the couple loses their ability to engage in transactions without being discriminated against, or the florist is forced to provide a service that violates her religious belief. For what little it’s worth, I wish that the situation were such that the florist just performed the services for her customers and everyone was happy. If I were a florist at right this moment, that’s what I think I would do. But I don’t have the conviction of a tightly defined understanding of marriage. I would bank on the idea that the world is not going to fall apart if more gay couples get married, but many think that gay marriage is a symptom of societal decline. The fact that the belief is sincere does not automatically make it legitimate, but it does mean that it shouldn’t be belittled as unimportant, or the response of heartless bigotry. A way forward might involve a more sincere public discourse about the importance of the positions of both sides, a discourse that exposes the malleability both of religious and legal interpretation behind the rigid exteriors that both sides put forward.

Do you see a win-win situation here? Should there be one? If not, why not?