The Righteous Mind and My Emotional Doubt

When I was in graduate school, I read Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolution. That book probably influenced my thinking of how we accumulate knowledge more than any other book other than the Bible. Basically Kuhn argued that science operates in paradigms that inhibit competing ideologies and theories. Only when it is fairly clear that these paradigms are inadequate to answer the research questions they are supposed to address are they replaced by a new paradigm which answers the challenges the old paradigm was unable to answer. However, this new paradigm will also inhibit competing ideologies and theories. There goes the notion that scientists engage in an open search of truth. Scholars work towards reinforcing the current paradigm dominating the field rather than engage in an investigation that looks for answers wherever they may be.

It remains to be seen whether The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt, will have the sort of impact on my thinking as The Structure of Scientific Revolution. But it is the first book in a long time that has a chance to have such an impact. The research question in Haidt’s work concerns how we develop our moral framework. We like to think we carefully consider moral issues and only after we have thought through those issues, do we construct our moral framework. Haidt convincingly shows us that this is not the process by which this happens. Rather, we instinctively are drawn towards certain moral values and propositions. Once we have those values and propositions, we use our intellect to construct cognitive defenses for our moral beliefs. In other words, we believe that we have logically arrived at our moral conclusions when in reality we have emotionally derived those conclusions and only use our logic to address cognitive attacks on those conclusions.

The Righteous Mind also looks at the different moral values of conservatives and liberals. Haidt points out that liberals tend to concentrate on the norms of fairness and taking care of others. But conservatives have a more varied set of moral values that includes fairness and taking care of others (although conservatives do not value them as much as liberals) but also includes values of loyalty, authority and sanctity. The different sets of moral values are not indications that one group is more rational in their approach to moral issues than their political opponent. Rather both conservatives and liberals have an instinct of what they see as moral and they then find “logical” rationalizations for their moral assertions.

I have observed how individuals from different positions in the political spectrum go out of their way to find rational justifications for their moral beliefs. This is also true for those with different religious beliefs. Both Christians and atheists assert that it is rational to make their assertions about reality and the moral implications that come from those assertions. An honest person has to wonder if either group truly recognizes how much their assertions are based upon their instincts or even their possible loss of social position due to renouncing their religious or irreligious ideals.

The social position of individuals undoubtedly reinforces their emotional inclinations to hold to certain political and/or religious values. I know that it would be costly for me to renounce my faith at this point of my life. Doing so would jeopardize my standing among my Christian friends, problematize my marriage to my Christian wife and create confusion with my previous writings. It is fair to assert that I have social pressure to remain a Christian. But that pressure is no less so for the atheist. What would Richard Dawkins lose if he renounced his atheism? At least as much as I would. Those who may not have public pronouncements connected to their religious orientation still have plenty to lose if they change their orientation due to loss of friendships and status, not to mention the psychological discord that may come with making such a change.

It is fair to assert that at certain times of our lives there are social pressures as well as moral instincts driving our religious or irreligious assertions. I am at one of those times. If I want to have some confidence that my beliefs are not merely the result of the social and psychological pressures I face, I have to ask if there is a way for me to know if my rationale for those beliefs is based upon logic instead of instinct or possible loss of social position? As I consider that question, I go back to Haidt’s work. His assertions are not new but it is a new angle of what I have known since graduate school. That is the idea that we are not as rational as we claim to be. Yet his discussion of instinct overriding our logic does produce a different dimension for me. It tells me that emotional desire often predicts our moral and spiritual beliefs. We have an emotional desire to see something as true and then we look for evidence for its truth. If I have emotional and personal reasons to hold onto my Christian faith then I can never be certain that I am holding on to that faith because I have rationally come to the conclusion it is true or because I want it to be true to meet my social and emotional needs.

That assertion provides a way to explore our own presuppositions. We can explore them by asking the question of whether there has ever been a time in which we emotionally wanted our current beliefs to be untrue. This means that I have to ask the question of whether I wanted my faith to be untrue. If during my entire life I have never wanted my current religious belief to be untrue then I cannot be sure if I have that belief due to my desires or my assessment of the evidence around me. Haidt’s work forces me to ask the question of whether there has ever been a time in which I did not have the social conditions that support me in my beliefs and that I actually did not want my Christian beliefs.

I did have such a time in my life. In the late 1980s, when I was in graduate school, I lost a romantic relationship with a good Christian white woman because her mom did not like the idea of her dating a black man. Her mother was not a Christian and in fact considered herself a radical feminist, so her assertions did not challenge my faith. But my ex-girlfriend’s Christian friends were happy to see our relationship end. It seems that they also were uncomfortable with the idea of interracial romance. These were supposedly good Christian people displaying this cruel racism which impacted my life. It forced me to question the worth of a religion that seemly encouraged others to accept racism. I was in graduate school and not engaged in any ministry at the time. I had quite a few non-Christian friends in my graduate school that did not seem to be tied to the ugly racism I was seeing. They would have been more supportive than my Christian friends. Putting together a narrative of having “grown” out of my faith due to what I learned in graduate school would have been quite acceptable to them. I could drop my faith with relatively little costs and with social networks among my friends in graduate school who were already prepared to support my planned apostasy.

Emotionally, I did not want to be a Christian at that point in my life. I wanted to find justification to leave my Christian faith and to gain freedom to chart my own course. The problem was that I had done quite of bit of reading from Christian intellectuals. If I had only been exposed to the arguments put forth by my non-Christian friends and in many of my classes, then I would not have any cognitive basis for keeping my Christian beliefs. But my previous readings forced me to not head in an emotional direction. Instead, I carefully considered whether I wanted to stay a Christian. Eventually, I came to the conclusion that remaining a Christian was the most logical thing I can do. Since I want to use this blog to concentrate on social science analysis rather than apologetical work, I will not discuss the arguments that convinced me, but they had to be powerful given my desire to leave my faith. Despite my emotional desires, the argument for what I believed was stronger than the arguments against those beliefs.

From that time, I have continued to develop in my faith. It was slow for a while after my time of doubt but eventually my faith has continued to emerge from that dark spiritual time. I have never been as open to leaving my faith as I was after that time of doubt. It is probably not realistic to continue living a state of doubt about what is important to us. We need to believe in something that is important if our lives are to have a sense of meaning and purpose. I am honest about my lack of motivation to leave my faith today; however, that does not take away from the fact that there was a time in which I doubted my beliefs, and ultimately that time help provide me comfort with the knowledge that I was willing at one point of my life and have tested my current belief system.

The fact that I was willing to test my religious beliefs is not an assurance that those beliefs are true. Naturally I believe them to be true or else I would not maintain them. However, being willing to test them at a time when I had emotional incentives to drop those beliefs provides for me an answer to the challenge embedded in The Righteous Mind. That challenge is some comfort that the moral system I have developed from my Christian presuppositions are not merely due to my instinct from the time I adopted them. If they were due only to emotional instinct then I certainly would have dropped those beliefs when I no longer had that emotional incentive. I was quite bitter at my ex-girlfriend, her mother and her Christian friends at the time of the breakup. Looking back now, I feel blessed by those events as they supplied the emotional energy to force me into the type of introspection that not everyone gets to experience. When I have doubts today, I can rely on that time when I was motivated to leave my faith to offer me reassurances. Ironically, having a time of real doubt can strengthen, instead of weaken, one’s confidence in his/her beliefs.

I like to think that we all have that experience in our lives. But I am realistic to know that individuals tend to work hard to avoid challenging their core presuppositions about reality. Confirmation bias is a powerful social factor and we too often underestimate its ability to rob us of our ability to be objective. That bias helps us maintain social networks of like-minded individuals, dismiss threatening arguments with a degree of rigor we do not use on supporting arguments, and devalue those who disagree with our core beliefs. We have a challenge to ask ourselves whether we have ever really interrogated our beliefs at a time when we emotionally wanted to let go of them. Or have we always relied on the initial instinctual sentiments we had when we constructed our current moral system?

To be sure there are some arguments by Haidt that I had a hard time accepting. For example, he points to evolution as the source of our moral development. I have a hard time using evolutionary theory in this way (And please I am not looking for a fight on evolution. I am not challenging biological evolution with that statement but rather evolution as a source for social mechanisms). The shortcomings of sociobiology make me quite uncomfortable with the evolutionary argument. Despite that shortcoming, Haidt forces us to question our ability to maintain our objectivity in much the same way that Kuhn did with his classic work. Perhaps those are the types of challenges which allow me to have an affinity for both academic pieces of work since they remind us of the importance to ask questions not only of others but most importantly of ourselves.

Intolerant of the Intolerant? No, Just Intolerant

Okay, I admit that I am a big fan of comic superheros. I have been since I was a kid. It is fun to think about what we can do with superpowers. Of course in the comic books the superpowers have to deal with enhanced physical, and sometimes mental, abilities. This gives heros the ability to overpower the “bad guys.” But it is kind of cool to think about intellectual nerd “superpowers.” For example, having the power to induce questions from students when they are confused instead of having them just look back at me with blank faces would be a great power to have. That would make for a more enriching academic environment. But it would not make for an interesting comic book scene, and so I would not expect Marvel or DC to provide one of their heros with that power any time soon.

However, a really nice superpower to provide better discourse would be the ability to ban misused phrases. These are the sort of phrases which makes the person saying the phrase feel good but really does not further our discourse. If I had that power, then the phrase I would like to ban is “intolerant of the intolerant.” Instead, the person should just be honest and say, “I’m intolerant because I do not like them.” Because ultimately that is what intolerance is about and legitimating it with an excuse of why a person is intolerant does not remove the reality of that intolerance.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, there are two definitions of intolerant that do not deal with physiological issues. The first is “unable or unwilling to endure” and the second is “unwilling to grant or share social, political, or professional rights.” When people talk about being intolerant of the intolerant, they generally are not overtly planning on taking away the rights of those they are intolerant towards, although they may end up doing just that with measures with disparate impact. Thus, the first definition should be the working definition for the balance of this blog entry. Those who use the intolerant of the intolerant term are basically saying that they are unwilling to endure others because they are unwilling to endure those they disagree with politically, socially or religiously. There really is no difference, as it concerns the action of intolerance, between those using this term and those they see as intolerant. Those they see as intolerant are intolerant towards those they do not like just like those who state that they are “intolerant of the intolerant.” Both groups are intolerant, but the group they are intolerant towards differs.

All of us are intolerant. I am intolerant in certain ways. When I was single, I was intolerant of the idea of dating a woman who did not share my similar Christian beliefs. No matter how beautiful, charismatic, smart or any other wonderful quality a woman had, if she did not have my Christian values, then I put any idea of romance completely out of my mind. This is intolerance as I am unwilling to endure a romantic relationship with a woman who does not share my Christian beliefs. I have my reasons for this intolerance, and so if someone accused me of being intolerant, I could provide those reasons. But at the end of the day, I have to admit that I was intolerant. There are plenty of other people who are not intolerant in that specific way since they are open to romance no matter the religion of their potential partner. But they may be intolerant in other ways when it comes to that potential partner. In fact the term “dealbreaker” is how we identify our romantic intolerances.

There is another way I am intolerant. I am personally intolerant of ideas I disagree with. I am unwilling to endure, or accept, ideas that I believe to be wrong. So I believe that I am right about certain ideas and that others are wrong. This does not mean that I hate those with whom I disagree. But if a person believes in anything strongly then they strongly disagree with other ideas. As a Christian, I disagree with those with different religious beliefs. I may be right or they may be right. But it is important to acknowledge that we are in disagreement. So I can be rightly accused of being intolerant in that I am unwilling to accept ideas that I disagree with.

But I am not alone in that type of intolerance. There are people who are not intolerant when it comes to religious beliefs since religious questions are not something they think about very much. But they may be politically intolerant. They may be “intolerant” towards political ideas of global warming is a myth or of those who support Obamacare. They are unwilling to accept those ideas and strongly disagree with those who have them. Others are intolerant as it concerns lifestyles. For example, there are vegetarians and vegans who are intolerant of the idea that it is acceptable to eat meat. It is possible that there are people without any strong convictions and tolerate any idea out there. But such creatures must certainly be rare. I speculate that 99.9 percent of us have some degree of intolerance because we believe some idea to be right and other ideas to be wrong.

Consequently, it is not enough to state that a person is intolerant. It is also important to know what we mean by intolerance. Do we mean a type of intolerance by which we decide who we are going to interact with on a romantic, or even friendship, level? Do we mean intolerance in that we have strongly held ideas and thus to not tolerate alternate ideas that we see as incorrect? This is a type of intolerance that most of us are willing to accept. But usually when people talk of intolerant of the intolerant, they do not have such a benign meaning of intolerance. Instead, they are indicating an intolerance that is an unfair rejection of those who do not deserve to be rejected. Their comment about being intolerant of the intolerant is a suggestion that those who receive their hatred deserve to be rejected.

So let us get to the core of the matter. In my classes, I often teach that there are no truly tolerant subcultures. All subcultures have out-groups which they are not willing to endure. For some, it is feminists and atheists. For others, it is conservative Christians and NRA members. But all groups have some degree of intolerance. They believe that certain groups deserve to be rejected. The reasons why such groups deserve to be rejected clearly vary. But the willingness not to endure certain groups is the same impulse regardless if we are talking about Christians fundamentalists, Islamic radicals, feminist activists or GLBT advocates. How each of these groups express their intolerance differs, but the general impulse to be intolerant is the same. We all have our reasons why we have intolerance towards certain individuals. The reasons are not equally beneficial and it may be fair to say that some groups deserve to be rejected more than others. But to come to that conclusion we need to discuss reasons for our intolerance rather than inadequately attempting to justify that intolerance by stating that others are intolerant as well.

When the person exclaims that they are intolerant of the intolerant, they are trying to justify their intolerance. But all intolerant individuals attempt to justify their intolerance. They possess scorn and alienation towards the members of those outgroups and thus they are intolerant. It is fair to argue that individuals have good reasons for being intolerant to certain groups. But to make that argument, an individual has to show why the members of the outgroups are wrong. That can lead to a rational discussion about which ideas or practices are better. But the intolerant of the intolerant comment is meant to short-circuit that discussion. The members of the outgroup are conceptualized as wrong merely because they are intolerant, even though the person himself or herself has also admitted to being intolerant. This attempted labeling of intolerance is a way to dismiss those one disagrees with without having to engage in the ideas of that person. This is the sort of dodge that persuades me to have the superpower to ban the phase “intolerant of the intolerant.” No, you are just intolerant.

In my ideal world, ideas would compete with each other without the propensity to label those with different ideas with pejorative terms that shut off debate. If a group has ideas that are wrong then we owe it to them, and to those listening to us, to show them why their ideas are wrong rather than stigmatize them into silence. Ironically, what the “intolerant of the intolerant” assertion does is allow individuals to mistreat those who are members of the outgroup without offering a real critique of the ideas offered by those in the outgroups. It has the pretention of asserting that one is right without the burden of showing why that person is right. Since I want a society where there are at least reasonable attempts at rational discourse, I want to have the superpower to ban the term “intolerant of the intolerant.”

From this day on, when I hear someone state that they are intolerant of the intolerant then in my mind I just think, “Oh, you’re intolerant.” The person may think that his or her intolerant is different in type from the intolerance of those he or she wants to criticize but in reality this is not the case. Will I tell that person to his or her face “Oh, you’re intolerant”? That depends of course on the context of the social situation and especially on whether I would embarrass my wife with my statement (sleeping on the couch is not fun). But regardless of whether I state the line or not, it is what I will think when someone attempts to claim a false superiority with an intolerant of the intolerant line.

Finally, it behooves me to mention that accusations of intolerance are not the only ways people attempt to shut up those they are debating against. Other accusations of bigotry, hatred, prejudice, and similar terms are also used to shut down debate rather than deal with different ideas. The challenge for those who use those terms is to assess whether they are using them to shut off debate about what they see as unpleasant ideas. Such individuals would also benefit from introspection in which they can explore whether they are as guilty of the bigotry, hatred or prejudice they accuse others of having. Because it does not rationalize intolerance when you aim that intolerance at those you define as intolerant. It only means that you are intolerant.

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.


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