How to Apologize

I admit that a lot of research in academic journals does not really help the common person. Some of it is political posturing and some of it deals with theoretical or exotic topics that simply will not impact most of us. But every now and then there is a paper that really can help everyone in society. In this case everyone in society is everyone who ever has had to apologize. According to my theological beliefs that is everyone but Jesus. That paper was authored by Karen Cerulo and Janet Ruane. The name of the article is “Apologies of the Rich and Famous: Cultural, Cognitive, and Social Explanations of Why We Care and Why We Forgive.” It is in the Social Psychology Quarterly 77 (2).

Cerulo and Ruane do something quite clever. They look at public apologies and use public opinion polls to assess which ones are accepted and which ones are not. Based on the level of acceptance the apologies generate allows them to determine potential factors that make an apology more, or less, likely to be accepted. To be sure, there are weaknesses in this paper, and it should not be seen as the final word on this subject. Rarely in the social sciences is any paper in a position to be seen as the final word of a subject. However, I do not want to dwell on the possible shortcomings of the paper; I will leave that to future researchers, and instead look at the insight we can gain through this work. There are lessons to be learned from apologies of the famous that can be applied to the apologies of us common folks.

Before I get to the heart of what is insightful about this work, I want to look at the implications of one of the findings of the authors that some may overlook. Generally speaking, those who make the apology are more powerful than those being apologized to. This may be due to the nature of the type of apology that the authors have studied. They are studying public apologies and those in the public are more likely to be powerful than other individuals. Having power is one of the reasons why a person would have a public presence. Nevertheless, the call for an apology may be something that the powerful have to be more mindful of doing than the relatively powerless. Indeed, those without power are likely to be consistently aware of their need to express regret for their errors since they are more likely to be in a position to be punished by those they offended. The powerful are likely to forget the need to apologize and thus the lessons offered in this article may apply more to the powerful than the powerless. I suspect that it is the powerful that are less open to being sufficiently contrite when they are in the wrong. So this finding suggests that when we gain power, we need to work at being mindful of situations where we may need to apologize since we can be tempted to use our power to ignore the need to apologize.

By the way, when sociologists talk about the powerful, they usually are talking about whites, males, the rich etc. There is good reason to talk about individuals with these traits as it concerns being powerful. But it is useful to remember that power is contextualized. In a predominately black high school, the white sophomore is not likely to feel a great deal of racial privilege. Although Christianity is the majority religion in the United States, as I pointed out in my last blog entry, on certain college campuses they are the ones who lack power relative to other individuals. Thus, as we consider whether we are the powerful or the powerless, we have to be aware of the context of our situation. Failure to have this awareness may fool us into thinking that we have little or no power in a given situation where in reality we have a good deal of power. This misinterpretation of the situation sometimes can lead us to not recognizing our need to apologize since we see ourselves as victims rather than perpetrators.

Okay. So if we find ourselves with the need to apologize what does this research suggest? The authors identify different types of apologies. There are apologies where the offender focuses on his or herself. It may be something like “I was caught in a bad situation and did wrong” or “My actions really do not reflect who I am.” There are apologies that focus on the victim. It can be something like “What happened to that man was wrong. I cannot imagine what I put him through.” It should come as no surprise that apologies that focus on the victim are much better than those that focus on the offender. Apologies that focus on the offender have the stronger possibility of denial and evasion. An apology that attempts to minimize the guilt of the offender is not an apology likely to be well received.

But it is not enough for the offender to focus the apology on the victim instead of on his/herself. The authors point out the importance of what they term “message sequencing.” What this means is that when we say something, we signal to those listening to us what to expect next. When we deliver what they expect, then there is a higher chance that they will accept it. So if we start talking about how badly we treated the victim but end our apology statement with some measure of justification for our actions then we likely have an apology that will not be well received. What the authors point out is that apologies that start with a focus on the victim and then either move to remorse or corrective action are the apologies that are most likely to be accepted. An example of remorse is a statement such as “I deeply regret what I did to Mrs. Smith.” Corrective action is when the offender announces what changes he or she is going to make so that the offence does not happen again. Thus a man apologizing for losing his temper to his wife may end with assurances that he is going to get professional anger management counseling. If you are in a situation where you need to apologize, the key is to start with a statement about how the victim was badly treated and to end the apology with remorse unless there is some corrective action you can take to make sure that your offence does not happen again. The authors do not necessarily find that corrective action is better than remorse, but it seems to me more reassuring to know the offender has a specific plan to change rather than only offering a statement of remorse. But then again, that is just me.

Reading the article helped me to further reflect on the effectiveness of an apology. There are situations where people are asking for an apology and the alleged offender does not feel that one is needed. I think this is what results in the “If anyone was offended by my actions then…”. Those apologies almost never work and this research suggests why. They are apologies that minimize the offence. The offender is trying to lessen the grief he or she is receiving for the action but since people do not accept the apology, there is little relief. In fact, and once again these are my thoughts and not from the article, a non-apology apology can sometimes make things worse.

This brings me to a somewhat controversial assertion. This is especially controversial considering that I approach moral decisions from a Christian perspective and a major part of that perspective is the recognition of our own human depravity. But my conclusion is that we should only apologize when we are convinced we have done something wrong. We should be very open about the possibility that we are in the wrong. It becomes so easy for us to find rationalizations for our actions. But if we have done a great deal of soul-searching and honestly feel that we have not done wrong then we should be honest. There may be a misunderstanding that needs to be cleared up. It may be that someone is attempting to manipulate a situation to put a person on the defensive. You and the other person may operate from a different set of moral standards, and you simply cannot accept what they say is your offense. There may be blame that should go to others instead of the person seen as the offender. But if a person has tried to see if he or she was in the wrong and comes to the conclusion that he or she is not in the wrong, then honesty demands no apology.

Do not get me wrong. I believe in apologies. And I want to emphasis that it is important to make an honest assessment of what we have potentially done wrong before refusing to apologize. Often what we originally thought was innocent turns out to not be so benign. I have offered apologies in the past and I will offer them in the future. Thanks to the work in this article, I will ideally do a better job of offering them in the future. But I also value honesty. If we are going to have good interpersonal relationships then we must be honest. At times it may seem easy to offer a weak apology so that this box can be checked and a person can try to avoid an unpleasant accusation. In the past, I have done just that. But this research suggests that people can see through an insincere apology. The tougher route may be to work though the misunderstandings to see if what a potential perpetrator did was indeed wrong and if not then how these misunderstandings can be avoided in the future.

Well, the next time I have to apologize I now have a framework to use for that apology. Apologize by focusing on the wrong done to the victim and then move to corrective action if possible and/or remorse if that is not possible. If we do this when we have offended others, then we have a chance to have our apology accepted and continue the relationship developed with those individuals.

Shame on you Bowdoin College

Next year I anticipate having a book out that will look more deeply into the anti-Christian hostility in our society. When it comes out, I will do a blog or three on the findings in that book. But this blog entry will not deal with those findings. Instead, one of the questions I considered as I conducted this research is how the anti-Christian hostility can manifest itself in our society. Then we get Bowdoin College with a near perfect example of how anti-Christian hostility can manifest itself. Since those with hostility towards Christians tend to be highly educated, wealthy and white, they tend to be in positions of institutional power – such as the administration of a college. (That is a finding in my new research but can also be seen in my previous work) They would be likely to extrinsically embrace a value of tolerance and yet would likely use measures with a disparate impact against Christians if such measures would enable them to express their hostility. It is in this context that I understand the recent controversy at Bowdoin College.
To those of you who have not heard of this controversy here is a quick recap. As seen in a New York Times article, the college recently decided to enforce a rule stating that student organizations must make all leadership roles open to any student regardless of sex, religion, sexual preference or race. The Intervarsity organization insists that it is a Christian organization and only wants Christians in leadership positions. As such, they have refused to sign a statement indicating that their leadership positions are open to non-Christians. One could argue that they should have signed the document and then do what they wanted with their leadership, but evidently they had too much integrity to engage in such dishonesty. Nevertheless, I am not sure such a strategy would work long-term as a non-Christian may challenge for leadership and then claim discrimination if he or she does not gain a leader’s role. As a result of Intervarsity’s refusal to make their leadership open to those who do not share the beliefs of the group, they are no longer a recognized student organization.
Other religious groups have been willing to sign the document and retain campus recognition. I can only assume that they have an ecumenical tradition of including individuals of different religious beliefs in their leadership structure or have no intention of abiding by the demands in the document. Either way, this is a policy that disproportionately punishes conservative Christian groups that want to maintain an ideological and/or theological purity to their organizations. Such desires are not unrealistic given the work of Dean Kelley who years ago argued that the strictness a religious organization maintains with its rules and ideas help that religious organization to grow. This policy is a way to minimize the potential impact of conservative Christian groups with the illusion that one is fair. In the age of an IRS where at least some progressive activists have subjected conservative groups to more scrutiny than progressive groups, one should be suspicious that even a rule that on the surface seems to be neutral will be applied in a non-neutral manner. Yet even if applied in a fair manner, this seemingly nonpartisan rule seems geared to support certain beliefs and puts the university on the side of certain religious ideas over others – something that violates notions of religious neutrality.
In the next paragraph, I will begin to explain why this sort of rule favors certain religious ideas and expressions over others, but I should note that I am not the first person to write about this controversy. Some have also expressed distain for Bowdoin’s decision while others have attempted to support it. As it is clear from the title of this entry, I am part of the former group. But I have taken advantage of not writing about this topic as soon as the New York Times article to more clearly think about the issue and to read the comments supporting and criticizing this policy. After laying out the problems I see with the policy, I will also address some arguments put forth in support of it.
The supporters of the policy argue that leadership of all groups should be open to anybody regardless of their religious beliefs. This does not mean that anyone will become a leader but that they can run for the office of leader in the group. Right from the start we have an attitude supporting a certain perspective which makes this policy non-neutral: the idea that democracy, or a vote in the group, is the acceptable way to choose a leader. Many religious groups believe that leadership should be selected by an elite group rather than from the masses. Others may simply look for a sign from God as to who their leader should be. I may agree or disagree with non-democratic methods but if I impose an idea of democracy into how a religious group chooses its leader, then I am no longer using a non-neutral policy.
But this incongruity is only the start of an obvious imposition of the college in the affairs of IVP’s religious ideas. The college suggests that the group can fulfill its goals even without a leader who is committed to Christianity. There is a religious tradition that transcends the one’s actual religious faith. This tradition is that the same God in Christianity is the same one in Judaism, Islam, Eastern religion etc. In this sort of religious tradition, it really would not matter if a Christian runs a Christian organization. In fact, an agnostic humanist could technically run the organization as long as they promote beneficial values. I am not going to comment on the theological soundness of this perspective. I respect the right of individuals to hold to this perspective. However, many Christian groups do not share such a perspective. They believe that the different religious traditions are incompatible and that they have chosen the proper path. For them, it is unthinkable to seek religious enlightenment from a non-Christian, even one with solid values. College administrators, in their role of administrators, should not choose sides in this theological debate. But when they imply that a Christian group should accept a non-Christian leader, then they have entered that debate. That Christian group has decided that leadership must be with their same religious tradition and does not accept the premise that all religions led to the same God. The college has no business dictating otherwise.
Certain arguments have been used to support the Bowdoin’s policy. One is that it is not a policy that requires leaders who are not Christian but merely states that they should be allowed to apply for leadership. However, as I noted above, the college should not dictate to organizations how their leadership is picked. But some will say there is no way that a non-Christian will be voted into power of a Christian organization. If that organization does not want a non-Christian then they only have to make sure that one is not voted into office. If we are talking about a large well-established organization, then this is true. But some Christian groups are rather small and a mischievous atheist may get a kick out of bringing some of his/her friends and getting voted as president of the local Christian student group. That atheist might think it would be cool for that Christian group to sponsor an “Emperor has no pants” program. “Nonsense” some will say. No one will take the time to infiltrate a religious group they do not believe in. (According to what I have heard the Intervarsity group has about 25 people. If only about half show up during a meeting then a dozen non-Christians is all that is needed to elect a non-Christian leader – not necessarily a very difficult task.) I have seen non-Christians flood a Christian website. I have seen speakers on college campuses shouted down. Is it really hard to believe that some students will believe that it is their right and duty to take over a Christian group and shut down that religious voice? Why would we provide such individuals with such an opportunity with the foolish Bowdoin policy?
Ironically, the Bowdoin policy is more likely to have an opposite effect than promoting a diversity of ideological and religious opinions that many of the supporters of this policy will profess to support. Small groups who have beliefs that contrast with popular views are the ones that can be taken over by a larger group of dissenters. If that becomes a common pattern, because believe it or not fads do happen on college campuses, then a vibrant group of diverse groups can become a homogenous set of groups based on the same progressive humanist values. Do I know that this will occur in time? No, but neither can those supporting the policy offer any real assurances that such a process will not occur. It is even possible that some may hope that such a process occurs so that those “intolerant” Christians will be unable to spread their “bigoted” beliefs. Policies likely to discriminate against minor groups should require powerful justification to be accepted and such justification is lacking for the Bowdoin policy.
The last sentence leads to another defense offered for this policy. That defense is that a college or university should not support a group that promotes discrimination. Individuals who offer this defense tend to speak of Christians as bigots and thus are not sorry to see them lose their recognition. Of course bigotry is in the eyes of the beholder. If bigotry is, as George Haggerty suggests, the opposite of respect and tolerance, then the support of policies out of a lack of respect and tolerance towards conservative Christian groups can be an anti-Christian bigotry. Indeed, Haggerty argues that bigotry is a problem on college campuses since it prevents the free exchange of ideas. It is ironic that some use claims of bigotry to support a policy that likely will inhibit a diversity of ideas on college campuses. The bottom line is that some individuals exhibit little concern about pushing policies that negatively impact groups they do not like, which is the opposite of the tolerance they profess to admire.
Finally, some argue that losing recognition is not a big deal. The de-recognized groups are free to meet off campus to their heart’s desire. But the college should not have to support the ideals of their group. However, the college should not support the ideals of any student group. Remember that college administrators are not supposed to take sides. They are supposed to allow students to associate, and form groups with whom they choose. Treating groups differently because they insist on leaders who actually believe in the mission of the group is choosing sides. It really does not matter what issues of recognition are at stake. If some groups get to use the college’s name, have access to student funding, use campus rooms or whatever while others do not get the same treatment based on their belief about group leadership, then the college is taking sides. They are giving some groups advantages over other groups. These are not the actions of those who support religious neutrality.
This is a policy with a disparate impact on conservative Christian groups. I have little doubt that if it has such an impact on other groups, that the administrators would be more sensitive to the concerns of the group. If this policy threatened a women’s rights organization since it made it possible for a bunch of men to take the organization over, I am certain that Bowdoin would think more than twice about the policy. It is also the case that these individuals understand the principle of disparate impact. I would guess that the administrators of Bowdoin would be quick to oppose voter ID laws and would use arguments similar to disparate impact to express their opposition. If they understand how policies can have a disparate impact against certain groups but are unconcerned about the disparate impact against conservative Christians that indicates that dislike of those Christians is a possible motivation of this policy. It is impossible to prove that anti-Christian perspectives drive this policy, but it is naïve to dismiss the possible power of such a bias to buttress the support for such a policy.
I want to make it clear that although I find this policy disturbing, I am not calling for government or legal action. I liken this policy to the same policy Bob Jones University used to have on interracial dating. Technically, the policy was color-blind, but there was strong evidence that antipathy towards African-Americans drove support for this policy. However, despite my distain for the policy, I did not believe that the government should have interfered with Bob Jones University. They were a private university, and racism is technically not against the law. However, they were deservedly stigmatized by the larger population. Likewise, Bowdoin is a private university, and they have the right to be anti-Christian in their outlook if they so choose. (There are indications that the California University System wants the same policy. For me, that would be a different situation and there should be legal remedies.) However, there should be a stigma against a non-sectarian administration that refuses to practice religious neutrality. Social stigma rather than legal interference is the way I would prefer to combat this policy. For this reason, do not be surprised if you hear me talk about Bowdoin College in the future.

Advice for Young Christian Academics

One of my young academic Christian facebook friends recently announced that he was going start a blog, even though he had been warned not to do so. I made a few comments on his page offering him some advice about being a Christian scholar with a blog. Indeed, I got the feeling that he was going to blog on conservative subjects and being a Christian who sometimes writes about subjects not popular with other academics, I hope my advice to him was relevant. The stakes are higher for him than for me given that he is young and unestablished. But of course on facebook, my advice is limited by the amount of space I can reasonably use. Since we are in a news cycle devoid of stories I want to comment on (Am I the only one tired of the Bergdahl story?), and I do not have research coming out that I have not already talked about, I decided to write this entry on the advice I would give young Christian academics about taking their research and/or ideas public – especially when those ideas are controversial.

In my early years, I wrote about racial issues such as interracial dating, racial issues in Christianity and racial identity. I, along with several other Christian scholars and activists, was critical of how Christians handled racial issues. I like to think that we played in important role in helping the Church become more aware of its need to deal with racism. Much of that work was seen favorably by other academics. In fact, most of my work dealing with our racialized society was well-received. Perhaps the only exception to this was my work on the assimilation of non-black racial minorities which naturally attracted some critique from some arguing that a different racial formation was emerging in our society. But even here the critiques were based on academic arguments and not personal accusations.

Over the last several years, my research focus has changed. I looked at anti-Christian bias in academia and then branched out to examining this bias in general society. I have also studied groups that opposed the political and social aims of conservative Christians. This new emphasis did not generate the same level of academic support as my work on race and racism. Indeed, even though I believe myself to be a better researcher and writer today than when I first started, it is harder to get my material published on these new subjects. Furthermore, my critics do not always rely merely on academic assessments of my work, but snide comments about my character are more commonplace. Therefore, I can tell young Christian scholars that I have been on both sides of the coin. I have conducted research that reinforced the epistemological presuppositions of most academics and work that challenged those presuppositions. I hope this provides me with a wide range of experiences from which I can offer this advice.

So the first piece of advice I would want to offer is for such scholars to seriously consider the consequences of doing research or discussing ideas that conflict with secular, humanist values in general academic culture. I appreciate the way my career developed. By focusing on work that was relatively non-controversial, I was able to learn how to do research without the extra burden of overcoming the philosophical assumptions within the discipline. This helped me understand what good research looked like and allowed me to later on be aware of when criticisms were illegitimate. I needed that experience to help me push forward on my work looking at anti-Christian perspectives in society. However, I cannot state that this is the only, or perhaps even the best, way a Christian should approach controversial topics. Perhaps a Christian feels called to jump right into those topics right from the very beginning. Or perhaps avoid those topics altogether. But it is important for the young Christian scholar to deliberately count the costs of tackling those topics and if choosing to proceed then deciding how to do so.

When considering whether to deal with a controversial topic, I recommend that the young Christian scholar does not fall for the hype of academics being open searchers for the truth. The scholar may believe that if he or she is correct and the evidence is sound, then other academics will listen. That is a myth and particularly relevant as it concerns Christians. My research has indicated that academics are more willing to discriminate against conservative Christians than against just about any other social group. If academics are willing to discriminate against conservative Christians then they are likely willing to ignore ideas, no matter how much evidence there is to support that idea, if it can be connected to conservative Christianity. Acknowledging this reality should be factored in since if a Christian is public with his or her faith it will be seen as that faith helping to shape his or her work and that can put job prospects of the young Christian scholar in jeopardy. (Yes, I know that homosexual academics are free to allow their sexuality to shape their work, female academics are free to allow their gender to shape their work and racial minorities are free to allow their racial identity shape their work but that is the way it is. It is not fair but we have to accept the reality of this) So as a Christian scholar considers at an early stage in his or her career whether to tackle controversial subjects, he or she must consider whether it is worth compromising occupational opportunities.

There is another factor to be pondered when tackling controversial topics. Academia in general is an institution that values excellence. I remember my first few submissions to peer review journals and the panning they received. It taught me that I had to be very detailed and critical of my own work. This is the case no matter the subject I choose to write about. However, on controversial subjects, the ability to do excellent work becomes even more important. There will be scholars not open to giving controversial work a fair hearing and will go out of their way to pick such work apart. As such, if a young Christian scholar wants to write about controversial subjects, particularly if his or her position can be attributed to Christian faith, then that scholar has to be even more rigorous than other academics.

This striving for excellence is relevant even when not writing in formal academic journals. Blog writing cannot be a venue where the Christian scholar can vent frustrations and loosely throw around wild comments. The internet will ensure that any such comments will last for the lifetime of the author. Those comments can be used, fairly or unfairly, to paint character. So I tell my young Christian scholar to weigh all of your words carefully, even if they are just in a blog or a comment section where your identity can be recognized. When you write, assume that those who vehemently disagree will read those comments and look for any way to use those comments against you. Those comments may come back to haunt the Christian scholar five, ten, or even twenty years from now. Even today, as a full professor, I am careful with what I write in public venues like this one, as I have seen how individuals have been burned by a loose statement that was twisted to make them look arrogant, stupid, bigoted etc.

Another piece of advice I would offer concerns finding social support. When I first entered academia as a Christian, I did not know a lot of other Christian academics. As a result I often felt alone. This was before the internet and other resources today that allow us to locate like-minded individuals. Fortunately, I did locate a group called ACTS (Association of Christians Teaching Sociology) that consisted of other Christian sociologists. Generally, these individuals taught on Christian college campuses and so they did not have the exact same challenges that I had, but we had enough in common that I could receive important social support. Today there are other opportunities for social networks that can be investigated. On many campuses there are interdisciplinary groups of Christian academics who meet and support each other. There are facebook groups where liked minded Christian academics can support each other. I am certain an enterprising young Christian scholar can find other opportunities to meet Christians in academia. There are some issues that neither your non-academic Christian friends nor your non-Christian academic friends will completely understand. So my advice is to prioritize finding like-minded colleagues who can offer the sort of social and intellectual support that a young Christian needs. That support is important for gaining a sounding board for whether to tackle important controversial issues or for needed encouragement if the scholar decides to take on those issues.

I would also ask young Christian academics to honestly consider the anti-intellectualism within our faith. That anti-intellectualism produces a suspicion about what occurs on college campuses. When we think about controversial topics we also have a dual responsibility with our fellow Christians. First, we must reassure them that we are not their enemies. Some Christians have had run-ins with academics who looked down upon and ridiculed them. We have to make sure they know that is not our intention. When I used to talk about racism at conferences, I made sure that the Christians I interacted with knew that my intentions were to help the Church, and not tear it down. Second, we have to challenge our Christian brothers and sisters to embrace intellectualism instead of rejecting it. I am a huge believer in Gould’s nonoverlapping magisteria idea that religion and science do not conflict with each other. We can encourage our fellow Christians to wholeheartedly use their faith to answer the questions relevant to our faith but to look towards science for the questions that can be answered by scientific inquiry. We do not merely tackle topics that are controversial to academics but also to Christians if we are going to be the prophets to the Church as well as to the society.

Finally, it is always important to make sure young Christian scholars take care of themselves spiritually as well as academically. I was fortunate in that I learned early in my life the value of a holistic approach to life. Thus, I strived to keep growing not only intellectually, but also physically and spiritually. This allowed me to become a multidimensional person. It is vital to do the hard intellectual work necessary to be a sound scholar. But it is also important to keep connected to our churches and tend to our own devotional lives if we want to nourish our Christian faith. Interacting with non-academic Christians helps keep me grounded in the struggles of others and not to think too highly of myself. It reminds me of the basic disciplines that give my faith its depth and meaning. I remember that I am a Christian first, and an academic second, which keeps me rooted in who I am.

Well this is some of my advice for the young Christian scholar. I hope that any who reads this blog entry will find this advice to be useful. I have loved this life of the spirit and of the mind. It is a challenge, but this life also comes with great personal and intellectual rewards. If you feel called to enter into that life as well, I welcome you with open arms.

Are Christians Stupid?

Stereotypes. We all use them even though we are told not to do so. In some ways our use of stereotypes is understandable. If I have limited knowledge about a person, I may use stereotypes to make guesses about him or her. If the stereotypes are based in reality, then this helps me make a reasonable guess about what that person is like. We stereotype from time to time as a shortcut to make a guess about what someone is like when we have not had the chance to learn about them. For example, if I have a Monster Truck Rally ticket to give away and it is down to one of two people, a male and a female, and I do not know either of them very well, then it is reasonable for me to give the tickets to the male. Given my very limited knowledge about Monster Truck Rallies, I venture to say that such events appeal more to men than they do to women. If I later learn that the man has no interest in such contests while the woman actually owns a Monster truck, then to insist that I stick with my stereotype of men and women would be incredibly unfair. I really do not blame people for stereotyping when there is a basis of reality for the stereotyping and when they are dealing with someone they have not had a chance to get to know. What I have a problem with is when individuals insist on maintaining the stereotype of a given individual when presented with evidence that the stereotype is not accurate. That evidence may be that the person does not fit the stereotype or it may be that the stereotype itself is false.

If we are going to use stereotypes as shortcuts, then we should make sure that our stereotypes have a basis in reality. I do not feel too bad about my Monster Truck stereotype since there is a reality that men are more into such “sports” than women. I do have the problem with the stereotype that blacks are less intelligent than whites since it is a stereotype without a solid basis in reality. There have been comparisons of IQ and cognitive ability exams suggesting an intellectual deficiency of African-Americans, but many researchers have rightly pointed out the weaknesses of such comparisons. Often these tests have been devised by individuals steeped in Eurocentric culture and values, which can make the tests more of a measure of European-American cultural competency than of innate intellectual ability. Therefore, efforts to suggest racial differences lead to intellectual differences have been met with a high degree of scorn and skepticism. Stereotypes based on those efforts are highly suspect and it is troublesome when individuals use such stereotypes to prejudge people of color.

There is a generous amount of research out there looking at the sort of stereotypes that exist in our society. Most of the research looks at the sort of stereotypes religious and political conservatives have. This is not surprising given that we know that religious and political conservatives are underrepresented in academia. But there are also stereotypes prevalent among religious and political progressives. It is valuable to assess if those stereotypes are based in reality or if they should be challenged.

One of the most common stereotypes is that Christians, and sometimes Republicans, are intellectually inferior. I saw this stereotype in the comments of many cultural progressive activist respondents who responded to my open ended internet questions (The data was used in my co-authored books What Motivates Cultural Progressives and There is No God). Here are a few of many examples of my respondents talking about lack of Christians’ cognitive capacity.
I find myself biased against Christians. I think they are dumb, and I find it very difficult to listen politely to Christian chatter. It annoys me. (Female, aged 36-45 with Master degree)

I tend to view them as uneducated people, or those who don’t have the capacity for critical thinking. Perhaps driven by fear. They also feel the need for some sort of birthright, something they feel they have inherited. (Female, aged 46-55 with Master degree)

Evidence is never an issue with them. They are very dumb and only require their own faith, not reason or evidence. (Female, aged 26-35 with some college)

At this point it is worth considering if such perspectives are based upon reality or if they are the results of prejudice and even possible bigotry. It is well documented that there is an anti-intellectual element within many Christian subcultures. Some Christians perceive scholarly work as a threat to their beliefs and thus have a philosophy that is overly skeptical of academic institutions. But this, in and of itself, is not evidence of innate intellectual inferiority or that “Christians are dumb.” However, there is research that has compared the scores of Christians to others on tests of cognitive ability. Some of this research has shown that Christians score lower than those with little or no traditional religious belief. This would suggest that stereotypes about Christian intellectual inferiority are based in empirical reality.

But remember that such cognitive tests have also indicated that African-Americans are intellectually inferior to European-Americans. Social scientists have rejected the results of such tests, at least in part, because we question cultural assumptions embedded in the construction of those tests. Complaints that these tests are created by whites and reflective of Eurocentric values and culture lead us to challenge the results emerging from these cross-racial comparisons. Is it possible that when we make comparisons of Christians to the irreligious, as has been done in certain research, that there is also a cultural component as well? Given the relative irreligious makeup of academics, it is reasonable to contend that tests of cognitive ability have been constructed in a cultural context not merely based on European-American culture but also in a subculture with secularized values. If this is true, then measures testing the cognitive abilities of Christians may be as accurate as measures testing the cognitive abilities of African-Americans.

But making this assertion is worthless unless there is evidence to back it up. I will soon have a research article (Coming out this year in the Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion) that provides some evidence about the unreliability of cognitive ability tests to make assertions about Christian intellectual inferiority. What I did was look at one of the tests suggesting that Christians have a lower level of cognitive ability than the irreligious – a study done by Robert Altemeyer in his book The Authoritarian Specter. He gave respondents a series of statements and asked them whether they agreed with those statements. He wanted to see how well his respondents were able to assess if there was sufficient evidence to support the assertions in the statements. He used 20 statements but on 4 of them religious individuals who had “authoritarian” (I have questioned the use of the concept of Right-Wing Authoritarianism in a previous blog, so I will not deal with this concept further here) tendencies tend to make incorrect assessment of the evidence presented in these statements. The four statements are:
1. Just because many religions in the world have legends about a big flood, that does not prove the story of Noah in the Bible is true.
2. The accounts of many people who nearly died, who say they traveled through a dark tunnel toward an all-loving Being of Light, proves the teachings of Christianity are true.
3. The fact that archaeologists have discovered a fallen wall at the site of ancient Jericho does not prove the story in the Bible about Joshua and the horns.
4. The fact that the Shroud of Turin was scientifically shown to have been made in the Middle Ages indicates it is a fake, not a miraculous impression made by God.

Assertions in such statements cannot be proven unless there are no other logical possibilities. However, the religious respondents in Altermeyer’s sample did not seem to understand that simply because other religions discussed a big flood that this did not mean that the story of Noah in the bible is true. They did not see how the accounts of those who nearly died failed to prove that Christian teachings are true. They seem to believe that discovering a wall at the site of Jericho proved that the story of Jericho in the bible is true. Finally, they did not understand that scientific evidence showing that the Shroud of Turin was made in the Middle Ages indicates that it was not made by God for Jesus in Biblical times.
I am not surprised that Christians are less likely to correctly interpret these statements since a correct interpretation of these statements would challenge their epistemological presuppositions. But as I was reading this research, it occurred to me that none of the statements Altermeyer used would challenge the epistemological presuppositions of atheists or agnostics. If Altermeyer’s work is an example of the type of research used to indicate the intellectual inferiority of Christians, then such research is incomplete unless the irreligious also face the same level of intellectual challenges provided to religious Christians.

It is with this in mind that I devised a study to do just that. I basically replicated Altermeyer’s study with one important exception. I added four statements that would also challenge the epistemological presuppositions of atheists and agnostics. Those statements are:
1. The existence of tragedies such as the Holocaust proves that there is not a loving God that cares for us.
2. The overwhelming evidence for evolution proves that Christian assertions about God creating the world are false.
3. Research has suggested that people who pray for better health are not any healthier than those who do not pray at all. Other research shows that people who pray for financial assistance are not more likely to become wealthier than those who do not pray. Yet this does not prove that there is no God who will answer prayers.
4. Psychological and sociological explanations for why people believe in religion prove that worship of God is driven by natural human needs instead of a supernatural deity.

I want to see if the irreligious recognized that the Holocaust does not prove that a loving God does not exist, that evidence of evolution does not prove that assertions about God creating the world is false, the fact that people who pray are not wealthier/healthier does not prove that there is not a God who answers prayer and that psychological/sociological explanations for why people believe in religion does not prove that worship of God is driven by natural needs instead of a supernatural deity. Let me be more specific. Three of the statements suffer from a post hoc fallacy, or assuming a causal relationship where one does not have to exist. There is not an automatic relationship between tragedies such as the Holocaust and the nonexistence of a loving deity since the deity may not be able to prevent tragedies or such tragedies may prevent greater horrors. Evolution can only tell us how life has developed and not whether there is a deity initiating that development. Psychological and sociological explanations do not pre-empt the possibility that individuals are worshiping a supernatural deity. One of the statements is logically accurate as studies indicating that prayer is not correlated to wealth or health does not eliminate the possibility of a deity that selectively answers prayers or who answers certain prayers, but not those concerning wealth or health.

Given this type of format, and the length this post has already run, I will not go into the details of the collection of the data or the statistical techniques used in this research. I do not mind answering questions about those issues in the comments below, but those wanting a more comprehensive explanation will have to read the article in Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion when it comes out later this year. It is sufficient for me to say that the atheists and agnostics did no better on statements that test their epistemological presuppositions as Christians did on statements that challenged their epistemological presuppositions. If Altemeyer had replaced his original statements challenging the epistemological assumptions of Christians with my new ones challenging the epistemological assumptions of atheists and agnostics, then he would have made the opposite finding of Christians lacking in cognitive abilities. He would have found that atheists and agnostics had lower levels of cognitive abilities than religious individuals. I question whether we can use his study to assert that religion is connected to lower cognitive abilities. Assertions that Christians are less intelligent than the non-religious should not rely upon tests only challenging Christian’s presuppositions.

Of course this is only one study, and it would be fair to see if other tests of cognitive abilities are also culturally or ideologically skewed. The types of previous assessments of such tests concerning racial differences are also relevant when making assertions about intellectual differences based on religious ideology. Until I see tests that have been proven to be culturally and/or ideologically balanced, I will be extremely skeptical of claims that Christians, and other religious individuals, are intellectually inferior to those who are not religious. Until proven otherwise, stereotypes of religious causation of intellectual inferiority are as viable as stereotypes of racial causation of intellectual inferiority.


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