It is time to Retire the Term “Bible-Thumper”

I am still deciding what to think about the Indiana RFRA law. But one of the opponents of the law recently made a disturbing comment. He chose to use the comment “Bible-Thumpers” and talked about “thumping the Bible-Thumpers.” Regardless of the arguments the speaker was making, he lost me once he said “Bible-Thumper.” Bible-Thumper is a religious epithet on par with the term “raghead” for Muslims. It is a term that should be retired in polite company and should not be used in televised public discussions.

Some may consider my opposition to this term as whining. I wonder if those same individuals are all right with the term “raghead.” Both Bible-Thumper and raghead denote a negative image of a particular religious group. Both terms are used in derogatory manner and indeed it is hard to think of a way to use those terms that is not derogatory. Neither term is outlawed, and I would fight any effort to outlaw either term. Free speech can be dehumanizing speech, but it is still free. But one term can be used on the air with little or no consequence while the other is taboo. It is time for both terms to be taboo.

I have tried to think of a time when I have used the term raghead. I am pleased to say that I cannot think of a single time in which I have done so. I have unfortunately heard the term used and have recoiled at its use. I probably have been guilty of not confronting the user of the term. But I know today that I would not tolerate its use in my personal presence even though I am not a Muslim. Likewise, I would hope that those who are not Christians will challenge those using the term Bible-Thumper so that we can take this epithet out of our discussions.

I guess it is fair to ask how I see the term Bible-Thumper in comparison to the n-word (To respect my African-American ancestors I refuse to write this word out completely). In my opinion, the n-word has its own special awful place in our history. No other insult has been connected to as much oppression and pain in U.S. history as this word. So it is a word that should be treated qualitatively from all other insults. But I do place Bible-Thumper with other insults we have developed in our society to dehumanize others. It is no better or worse than derogatory terms other than the n-word.

One of the main problems with such derogatory terms is that they prevent us from having a productive conversation with each other. I remember sitting in a graduate school class when the instructor causally called a group of conservative Christians “Bible-Thumpers.” As a Christian, I looked around the class to see if anyone would challenge her. It was not just that no one spoke up against the insult. As I looked at the faces of my peers, it was clear that this was just a term to use with no repercussions or stigma. As a Christian it was reinforced to me that I did not have a place in that conversation, and as a student I had no institutional power to confront that reality. Insulting others does not aid our conversations, it shuts conversations down.

So beyond the fact that it is wrong to use dehumanizing terms for those who differ from us, it is simply not an acceptable way for us to communicate with each other in our multicultural society. If we want real solutions to the issues brought up by Indiana’s RFRA law (By the way if you want to use my comment section to argue about the RFRA law then have at it. I will not be participating since I am still figuring out what my stance on it should be) then we should strive for solutions that include as many groups as possible. Having spent many years dealing with issues of racial reconciliation, I know that such solutions do not come unless we treat all parties with a seriousness that does not come from the use of insults. As such, it should not be controversial to call for a stigmatization of the use of the term “Bible-Thumper” and put that term in the garbage bin of terms no longer used on air or among people who want to be seen as having some degree of class. That is one tiny step we can take to produce the useful conversations we need to resolve our differences.

Confirmation Bias: Everybody’s Problem

In a recent study, researchers found that both conservatives and progressives tend to have less faith in scientific findings that go against their political presuppositions. This comes as no surprise to me. I was always suspicious of arguments that appreciation of science is tied to a given political perspective. In fact, scholarship that reinforces the idea that individuals of a certain political ideology are superior to others always seemed self-serving to me. Perhaps that is why I never bought into theories such as Right-Wing Authoritarianism which argued, among other things, that political conservatives are more willing to oppress others than political progressives. In my previous work, I showed that these findings are largely tied to the group that faces prejudice or oppression. When respondents are asked about conservative Christians, then those who do not tend to have Right-Wing Authoritarianism, who are more likely to be political progressives, are more likely to support measures that take away the rights of others.

The findings of this study on having faith in science are tied to the well-known concept of confirmation bias. We tend to use this bias to determine the evidence we will accept. So if there is scientific research that supports our political beliefs, then we will give those scientific results more weight than scientific research challenging those beliefs. This is true with our experiences, logical thinking, advice from peers and any other information we gain during the course of our life. Confirmation bias does not know political party, racial identity or religious affiliation. It affects us all.

There is a little game I like to play from time to time to remind me about the power of confirmation bias. I will look at a current political event and then imagine it with the political parties switched. Then I consider if I have evidence that the political groups would merely switch roles. For example, remember not too long ago Republicans were complaining about the amount of vacation time the President Obama was taking. Of course, the Democrats were working hard to defend him. What if President Obama were a Republican? I know that then it would be the Democrats complaining about the amount of vacation time and Republicans would defend the president. I know this because that is precisely what happened with President George Bush. Or consider the advisability of the filibuster. Right now, the Democrats consider the filibuster to be pure gold while the Republicans hate it. Just a few months ago the roles were reversed, and they were calling the Republicans the “party of No.” I am often amazed at how individuals quickly change their values once their political party is under the gun. We can thank confirmation bias for our ability to be morally flexible.

It is one thing when we see the effects of confirmation bias in politics. After all, part of what politics is about is fighting for one’s own social group. Naturally, political activists are not going to be unbiased when trying to gain more resources for their groups. But confirmation bias is much more problematic when we consider the sciences. Science is supposed to be the institution whereby we gain important information about our world. Can we gain that information when we have the reality of confirmation bias? In theory we should be able to overcome that bias with a community of scientists from different perspectives. Competing ideas should drive out the lesser ones and leave the theories that best describe our physical and social reality. I have yet to read or hear of a way that we can ensure that any single individual can avoid confirmation bias. But, if we provide our work to academic peers, some of whom have different scientific perspectives than our own and will be especially harsh on our ideas, then we can at least partially neutralize that bias as a community.

The problem is that this is what works in theory but not in reality. Science is a social institution, and like all social institutions, it tends to be shaped by the social biases of the individuals in it. In theory, the sciences could attract individuals from contrasting social places in our society and thus likely have distinct perspectives. In reality, scholars tend to come from a very similar social position and tend to bring in quite similar presuppositions about reality and society. They do not challenge the overarching social and political paradigm of other scholars. If they dare to make such challenges, then they can find themselves stigmatized for having the wrong political ideas, not for their inability to conduct scientific research as I observed with the controversy over Mark Regnerus’s work.

It is not hard to understand why we have confirmation bias. We naturally want to confidently assert the correctness of our beliefs and that those who disagree with us are mistaken. We may even feel offended that others would dare to have beliefs that do not comport to the reality we “know” to be true. So, just as the research on political bias and scientific results suggest, we set higher standards for evidence that challenges our beliefs or even move the goalpost when others produce evidence that meets those standards. If we cannot have complete confidence in the scientific community’s ability to overcome confirmation bias, then can we trust our own ability? I suggest that we cannot have that complete confidence in ourselves. A more rational approach is to recognize that confirmation bias is in all of us, and yes I definitely include myself, and then attempt to take steps to reduce its effect.

How can we reduce the possible effects of confirmation bias in our lives? I am just like everyone else in that I am vulnerable to confirmation bias. But it is something that I have thought a lot about. As such, I have tried to take steps to at least limit its potential effects in my life. Maybe I have succeeded and maybe I have failed. Nevertheless, I will share some of the ideas I have developed in an effort to deal with the reality of confirmation bias.

The obvious first step is the step every drug abuser knows, which is to recognize that we have a problem. I come to my conclusions as best as I can and, as often seen in my blogs, will argue for those conclusions. But I acknowledge in the back of my mind that I may be wrong. For example, I believe in God. I will tend to look for evidence that confirms my theistic presuppositions. Consistently recognizing that tendency within myself helps me to see when I am giving evidence for my previous beliefs undue weight. It helps me, but that does not mean that I am immune to the effects of selective attention to evidence.

There are questions that the scientific method cannot help us answer. But to the degree that we can use this type of approach to deal with the confirmation bias in our lives, the better off we will be. To this extent, when I settle on research questions to pursue, I seek out research designs that allow for the possibility of the opposite of my expectation. For example, when I explored the possibility of academic bias I suspected that bias was highest against political conservatives. But I asked about a wide variety of social groups so that if there was bias against political progressives then I would capture that effect. That strategy paid off since my inclusion of religious groups allowed me to find out that bias was highest against religious, and not political, conservatives. My care to use research designs that allow for findings that are contrary to my presuppositions comes in part because I recognize the power of confirmation bias and that I must find ways to account for it. This does not mean that the scientific method can completely neutralize confirmation bias since we can become too confident in its accuracy when we do not recognize confirmation bias in ourselves. Only when we recognize confirmation bias in our own lives are we able to use a scientific method perspective to deal with that bias.

This leads to a second way we can try to reduce confirmation bias. As much as possible, we should seek out arguments that contradict our own. And these arguments should be the best of the arguments of the other side, not the worst. We definitely should not create straw man arguments to tear down so that we can feel good about ourselves. In my case, political ideology is not nearly as salient to my social identity as my religious faith. Being a Christian on a state campus is an excellent way to hear arguments that run counter to my faith. When I conducted research on atheists, I found an excellent opportunity to read atheist material and hear the best arguments from atheists. Of course, I bring a confirmation bias into those readings and cannot pretend to be an objective observer. But at least exposing myself to different ideas provides me with an opportunity to allow those ideas to challenge my presuppositions.

It is fair to ask whether I ever change my ideas due to gaining new information. If change is not possible, then there is evidence that my confirmation bias is so strong that I cannot see how it shapes my perspectives. Of course, I have made changes on minor issues that are not important to me. But that does not show much as the true test is whether I can change when I have an emotional or identity investment on the issues. Early in my career, I conducted research on interracial romance, probably in part because I was part of such romances. So I was heavily invested in the notion that interracial romance was a social good. It was a time in which interracial relationships were not accepted in many sectors in society. In fact, one of the arguments I heard against them was that they were less stable. My inclination was to believe this to be a myth perpetuated by those troubled with racial bigotry. Such a belief fit well into my social identity as one who wanted to see more acceptance of interracial romance. However, as I read scientific research, I came to the conclusion that interracial relationships indeed are less stable than same-race relationships. As much as I wanted to deny what I thought to be a racist myth, research indicated empirical support for that “myth.” Even though it seemed to empower those who I knew were wrong about interracial marriage, I had to change my mind on an issue due to exposing myself to new evidence. That was difficult to do given my presuppositions about interracial romance. It did not remove my commitment to battle against the voices at that time that resisted interracial romance but it did force me to make sure that my arguments against those voices were based on accurate research.

Another way of dealing with confirmation bias is to be aware of the non-rational, emotional aspect of our lives. I tend to be more cognitive than emotional. But all of us are emotional to some degree, and we make decision based on those emotions. Confirmation bias works by using those emotions to reinforce our presuppositions. So while we believe that we have logically come to certain conclusions, the reality is often that we are using logic to reinforce the conclusions we emotionally want. I wish there was an easy way to turn off our emotions, but there is no off switch. The emotional hit we get from reinforcing the ideas we feel good about is going to be there and the best thing we can do is recognize it.

One way we can challenge this tendency is to simply allow life to bring us to a point where those emotions are not driving us the way they once did. I recently blogged about a time I was challenged in my Christian faith. I was not challenged because of any logical argument but because certain circumstances made me emotionally desirous of dropping my faith. Although I grew up a Christian and found emotional comfort in it up to that point, I now had emotional reasons to leave my previous beliefs. But what began as a challenge to my previous Christian beliefs turned out to be a hidden blessing. It forced me to deeply consider whether my religious presuppositions were merely due to the way I was socialized or whether there were justifiable reasons for my Christian beliefs. In the end, I come to the conclusion that the evidence for my beliefs was generally stronger than the evidence against them. I made minor alterations but did not jettison them. Indeed, I felt better about my beliefs since I knew that they were not entirely based on my emotional desires.

Combating confirmation bias on a personal level will not eliminate it in the individual battling it, much less the larger social institutions such as academia. Just as individuals have to be self-aware about the potential of confirmation bias in themselves, there is a need for institutional solutions. In Compromising Scholarship I offered potential answers for dealing with academic social biases. Many of my suggestions centered upon intentional efforts to make academia more comfortable for those who tend to experience the effects of those biases. Changing a community is more difficult than changing an individual. As important as it is to deal with confirmation bias in the sciences, I am skeptical that enough scholars will be convinced in the importance of tackling this important issue. Confirmation bias is too powerful for many scholars to overcome it.

This blog entry started out with an explanation on why political conservatives and political progressives do not tend to have faith in scientific findings that go against their political perspectives. Obviously pure confirmation bias on the part of those conservatives and progressives is a factor. Ironically, confirmation bias among academics may also play a role in the lack of scientific faith as well. Since conservatives and progressives become very skeptical of scientists who conduct research that works against their political interest, they are likely to observe elements of confirmation bias among those scientists, which may contribute to their lack of faith. Perhaps the main reason why academics should consider dealing with confirmation bias in their own ranks is that it may help them win over those who have lost their scientific faith.

What Tenure at Marquette University Means?

According to a recent article, Marquette University is on the verge of stripping Professor John C. McAdams of his tenure and then relieving him of his job. This prospect should strike fear in every professor in the country, but it will not. Instead, I am concerned that many academics will attempt to find ways to justify this firing because they do not approve of the political policies of Dr. McAdams. I am certain that he has political stances that I disagree with as well. But to merely use those disagreements to justify the actions of the administration of Marquette is a short-sighted way of looking at this situation and one I will vigorously fight against.

Before going into my concern about those who have no problems with Dr. McAdams being dismissed, I need to outline the events that led to this situation. You can use the link above to check my recounting of this situation and to gain more details than I want to discuss at this time. An undergraduate student in a philosophy class came to Dr. McAdams and complained about a graduate student teacher. He had recorded a conversation with her in which she told him that he would not be allowed to disagree with same-sex marriage. After a heated exchange, she told him that if he did not like that request, then he could drop the course. Dr. McAdams discussed this confrontation in a blog and included the name of the graduate student. The student started receiving hate mail, and she eventually left the campus. Marquette University administrators suspended professor McAdams, and now it appears that they are seeking to make that suspension permanent by taking away his tenure.

Tenure is a precious commodity in academia. It is part of what makes this a great occupation for me. Given how many years of schooling I have, it is fair to say that I am quite underpaid in our society. No one should feel sorry for me as I am not poor. But others who have as much post-graduate schooling as I – physicians, lawyers – make a great deal more money. But where I am well compensated is ideological freedom. A business person saying the wrong thing can get fired merely for that statement. A lawyer is not completely free to argue for any cause he or she wants, especially if that cause contradicts the interests of the clients in the firm. But academics who have proven themselves to be reliable scholars have earned the right to go wherever their ideas will take them. That is the beauty of tenure. It is a beauty that the administrators of Marquette University want to spoil.

Are there people misusing their tenure to chase foolish ideas? Of course that will occur. But what is considered foolish yesterday is often accepted today. At one point of our history, it was considered foolish to think that women were as smart as men, but fortunately today it is foolish to think otherwise. We have to allow people to explore “foolish” ideas if tenure is going to mean anything. Our own assessment of the wisdom of a given idea at a given time cannot be the rubric by which we decide which academic gets to keep their job and who does not. Perhaps I feel especially vexed by this because I am one who is not afraid of exploring what some call foolish ideas. Hello? Have you seen what happens when I write about Christianophobia? But as a professor who has shown the ability to do peer-reviewed research in my discipline, I have earned the right to be critiqued for my foolish ideas, but not fired. So this situation with Dr. McAdams resonates with me in ways it may not if I were more conformist.

What are some of the excuses individuals use to justify the actions of Marquette University? Looking through some of the comments in articles on this subject reveals a few such arguments. One argument is that this is a situation of abuse of power since it is a professor against a graduate student. Yet Dr. McAdams is a professor of Political Science and the student was in Philosophy. He had no direct power over her. I have no power over an English graduate student at the University of North Texas unless I happen to be asked to be on his/her dissertation or thesis committee. I do not think this student would put Dr. McAdams on her dissertation committee and so he has no power over her.

Another argument given is that Dr. McAdams is not being fired for his ideas but for providing the name of the graduate student and setting her up for abuse. This may be a way of differentiating the actions of Dr. McAdams and that of other professors. However, he is not the first academic to discuss a controversial situation and name a student. I found a couple of them here and here online.

By the way, I find it curious that those complaining about McAdam’s abuse of power have nothing to say about the graduate student teacher’s power over her student. She had direct power over him and appears to drive him from the course. If anything she had more power over the student than Dr. McAdams had over her. I would not want to see her fired from her job either, but clearly she is not creating a classroom atmosphere that allows for the exploration of ideas. If I were her graduate advisor, you better believe that I would have sat her down to discuss how she can better handle her confrontation with the student and how she can make changes to improve her presentation as a teacher.

Some may complain that this sacking is justified since he used information from an unethical tape recording. I too am uncomfortable with a student recording a conversation without the instructor knowing that she is being recorded. I understand why the student felt motivated since the administration attempted to argue that the student dropped the course due to his academic failure. The recording suggests that this is not entirely the case. Nevertheless, I am concerned about our decreasing levels of privacy in our society and this student’s actions do not help lessen my concern. In this new age of electronic surveillance, we need to carefully think about how we can protect our privacy.

But I wonder if those who complain about the recording were just as concerned when Donald Sterling was recorded without his knowledge. I was. If privacy is an important concern then one should not protect the privacy of only those one agrees with. I think Sterling is a racist bigot, but I fear that this recording set a bad precedent, and I wrote as much. My suspicion is that those who are okay with catching someone like Sterling but not okay with the graduate student tripping herself up in a recording have a tribal notion of privacy whereby that is a right only for those who support the issues they support.

Unfortunately, I do not think that a true desire for justice for the graduate student is driving the effort to fire Dr. McAdams. Those who use the above excuses to justify firing Dr. McAdams are often silent when those principles apply to other professors. Dr. McAdam’s mistake is not misusing his power, naming the student, or using taped material. His “mistake” was not toeing the proper political line on a controversial issue. At Marquette University there is not true tenure protection unless you are willing to sufficiently agree with the political and social goals of the university’s administrators. Of course everyone realizes that this is not real intellectual protection and thus individuals offer up other excuses for firing Dr. McAdams. But those excuses strain any sense of credibility.

Pretend for an instant that the situation above was the same with one key difference. Instead of the graduate student stating that those who oppose same-sex marriage were not allowed to express their opposition that those who supported same-sex marriage were not allowed to express their support. Imagine everything else to be the same in that a student records the graduate instructor, and Dr. McAdams provides her name in a blog which results in her reception of hate mail. That hate mail then drives her away from the program. Can anyone with a straight face really say that the administration would be trying to fire Dr. McAdams? What is more plausible is that the administration would have fired the graduate student or let the hate mail drive her away and then washed their hands of this situation. Our inability to imagine that the Marquette administration would act with any similarity to the current situation when we alter the political substance of the situation indicates that this is not about how Dr. McAdams acted as much as it is about the political issues he is addressing. They want to get rid of him because he has taken a political stance on what they envision as wrong. That is the opposite of what tenure is supposed to be about. A professor’s political viewpoint, no matter how much we find it disagreeable, should never be used to strip that professor of tenure or tenure is just another way to ensure ideological purity.

Before I came into academia, I had an idealized vision of what science was supposed to be about. In my mind it was an open search for truth. Part of that search for truth was that scientists are free to test a wide variety of possible answers. They would not be limited in the possible answers they could argue, but would be limited by the results of disinterested experiments. I quickly learned that this is a fantasy. Science is an institution run by subjective humans with their own social and political biases. Some scholars do an excellent job controlling their biases while other do a miserable job. But even this difference does not eliminate the reality that we all have biases that can shape how we treat ideas we disagree with and those who hold them. It is one thing to allow those biases to run amok in one’s own work, but it is understandable that this may happen. It takes things to an entirely new level when academics’ and administrators’ biases lead them to quasi-witch hunts whereby those who do not agree with their presuppositions are to be driven from the field. My naïve perceptions are now gone, and I realize that academia is not the open search for truth as I once envisioned it to be. I wish I could say that I was surprised by what happened at Marquette University, but I am afraid I have become too jaded to have such surprise today.

So that future professors are not mistaken by what tenure means at Marquette University, we need to make their tenure expectations clear to them. At Marquette University, an incoming professor has every right to earn tenure. But at Marquette University, tenure means that they are allowed to retain their position as long as they do not differ too much from the social and political values of the administration. If they do differ, then they may only keep their tenure if they are perfect. Imprudent actions excused by those that agree with the administration will not be tolerated by those that the administrators disagree with. Professors who disagree sufficiently with the administration of Marquette must live out their career with a double standard whereby they do not have the protection of professors who conform to the ideological beliefs of the administrators. When those who disagree with the administration commit any errors, then they can expect to have their tenure taken away from them and to be summarily fired.

If the policy in the last paragraph only belonged to Marquette then I could live with it. We could write them off as a rogue university. I fear that unless academics of good will speak up, then Marquette will be the norm and not the exception. You do not have to agree with Dr. McAdams to be willing to call out the dysfunctional actions of the Marquette administration. However, unless academics are prepared to be ideologically subservient to their current administration, then they need to understand that fighting for Dr. McAdams is also fighting for themselves.

The Nature and Consequences of Christianophobia

Okay. I know I am being lazy in not writing a full blog entry. But I just put up a video with some of the themes I have blogged about before and so I will just share it here. I do not respond to comments on YouTube but as you may know I sometimes respond to comments at my blog. So if you want to dialog about my claims in the video then you need to put your comments here.