A Policy Change

In my last blog entry I dealt with a subject I felt deserved discussion but only if the discussion was informed. So I started the blog with a disclaimer that I would remove any comment I thought was merely argumentative. I did have to remove the comments of one visitor. But then a great thing happened. There was good conversation. It was the type of conversation that I have consistently hoped that would occur as a result of my efforts.

This has gotten me thinking about the balance I have tried to strike. I think one of the purposes of blogs is to spur useful conversation. For this reason I have been very lax in allowing individuals to comment on my blogs. However, it has become clear to me that many individuals take advantage of this to initiate demeaning arguments rather than discussions and to mock rather than communicate. Often I find the comment section littered with such attempts and it gets harder to have productive discussions. I also fear that such individuals tend to drive away people who do not want to have to deal with unreasonable hostility. I have come to the conclusion that my previous policy of tolerance is not working.

There are those who do not allow any comments on their blogs. I think it is unfortunate that they restrict all comment but I have come to understand why they do this. Instead of a rich conversation so many times the comment section turns into mockery and shallow comments. Those who do not allow comments take away the possibility of a conversation that would build on the insight they offer in their blog. However, they also deprive certain individuals the chance to insult others and to distort the ideas presented. Given my experience taking out the comment section is a reasonable position for a Patheos blogger to take. However, I am not quite ready to take that measure.

Therefore, from this point on I will be more proactive in pruning the comment section. Comments that start out with an ad hominem attack or insult will be removed. Those that are merely argumentative will also be removed. Comments that are merely sniping at me or at others will not be tolerated. I will not blacklist the commenter so the person can come back if he or she so chooses. However those particular comments will be removed as soon as I find them. Please note that this policy change is only linked to my blogs. The other Black, White and Gray bloggers have their own philosophy on how to handle the comment sections of their blogs and it is not my business to alter them.

This means more work for me. It means I will have to check the comments from time to time to make sure that they meet with my new standards. It also places pressure on myself to make judgments as to what is acceptable. I understand that I run the risk of stifling discussion. My last blog indicated that I do not remove comments simply because they disagree with me. However, it is possible, indeed even likely, that I may remove what I perceive as an argumentative comment from a well-intention person. This may discourage individuals from commenting. That is one of the reasons why I have been hesitant to make this policy change. Please know that I take this new role very seriously and I would prefer not to “police” the comments. But quite simply I think the upside is much greater than the downside of my previous approach. Even though I anticipate that this will reduce the number of comments to my blog entries, I also anticipate that the quality of the comments will be much higher. I look forward to better discussions as I implement this new policy.

Christians have not taken over Sociology of Religion

I begin this blog entry with a disclaimer. Normally I do not police the comments to my blogs very heavily. However, the topic of this discussion deals with some degree of inside baseball of social science academics and especially academics who study religion. If there is a discussion in the comments, I want it to be informed. As always I welcome dissenting opinions, but this time I am going to insist that these opinions are not merely argumentative and, dare I say, trollish. If you do not know about the dynamics of getting articles published in social science journals, then do not come here to try to get a rise out of me. On this one blog entry, I am removing comments I deem to be merely argumentative. If you want to argue against my position, then be sure to demonstrate that you know what you are talking about. If you do, then we can possibly have a productive discussion, which is what I like to see without visitors to the blog having to wade through a bunch of irrelevant statements and proclamations.

The topic concerns a recent blog by J. Sumerau. In the blog he complains that there are too many religious scholars, and it seems that he focuses more on Christian scholars, in sociology of religion. His basic contention is that the presence of religious academics has muted a critical examination of religion. He points out the fact that many sociology of religion scholars (and I am one of them) signed a document supporting Mark Regnerus. He also offers a research article arguing that there are fewer articles with a critical perspective in religion journals than in gender or sexuality journals. He speculates that many in this field tend to work to support a religious or Christian ideology, which implies that they are not in a position to offer critical analysis. He also offers his own experience and difficulty in getting his research, which would have a more critical orientation, published in sociology of religion journals. Finally, he argues that academic meetings dealing with research about religion have the feel of a “church” rather than an academic conference.

I hope I accurately characterized his arguments. If I have not, then I would like clarification on where I am off. But for now, I want to look at these arguments as I have stated them. My contention is that he is wrong and my counterarguments are more based on evidence than his original arguments.

His first assertion, that research in sociology of religion is not as oriented by a critical framework as research in gender and sexuality, is probably correct. However, if we look at religion as a phenomenon to understand, then we can see that studying religion does not necessarily lead to the level of critical analysis one uses to study gender and/or sexuality. Gender and sexuality have generally been conceptualized from a social problem perspective. As such, it is understandable why there would be more critical analysis in the study of gender or sexuality than in religion. Yes, one can use a critical perspective to explore religion, and we need such research. But such research has been done, and more will be done in the future. However, religious organizations are exceptional institutions which invite descriptive as well as critical analysis. The comparison of the study of religion to the study of gender or sexuality is one of apples to oranges.

Let me spend a little time on his criticism of those of us who supported Regnerus. I signed the document and would again. Anytime there is research that violates the political powers that be so much that a researcher is being investigated and audited as well as facing political actors attempting to remove the article from the journal, then I will protest unless you can show me that the research is so badly done, not just politically incorrect, or so much fraud was involved that such steps are warranted. I will do it whether the researcher is a Christian or not. It is an issue of freedom of academic inquiry. The Regnerus controversy influenced me to read the previous work on same-sex parenting. To be frank, the vast majority of that research is worthless. Regnerus’s work was not perfect, but what research is perfect? And it has spawned other research that supports much of what he found. Why not investigate and audit some of the previous work on same-sex marriage that was so awful? That was not done simply because previous research provided the answers wanted by the political powers that went after Regnerus. I fail to see how any fair-minded person could not see this double standard. The question Sumerau asks implies that it is wrong for so many sociologists of religion to support Regnerus. My question is why aren’t there more scholars who, although they disagree with some of the political implications of his work, still care about real academic freedom enough to support him against this double standard?

Sumerau also argued about the difficulty he had getting published in sociology of religion journals relative to the gender and sexuality journals he normally publishes in. Sometimes going from one subfield to another brings with it a learning curve about what gets published. Thus, publications do not always come as easily as they did before. But a Google Scholar search has shown that Sumerau has been published in sociology of religion journals. So clearly it is not impossible for him to obtain publications. Critical analysis is not banned in sociology of religion journals. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that some of his efforts were unfairly rejected. Without an audit of the manuscripts he complains about, I cannot know this for certain, but it is likely that he has had, in terms of poker, some bad beats.

But when you have been at this game as long as I have, you know that this is not strong evidence of a biased field. I also have been rejected by reviewers and editors for reasons I felt were less than adequate. I had a paper rejected because a reviewer said it was “too trite.” One review was so bad (claimed I missed arguments that were clearly in the paper and suggested a statistical methodology that was obviously inappropriate) that I wrote back to the editor. The editor could not defend the review, but basically told me that this is the way it goes. So bad reviews and editing happen. It probably happens in sociology of religion journals just as much as other journals. But that is just part of our occupation as scholars, not evidence that the Christians have “taken over.”

By the way, having published early in my career research on racial issues that mostly criticized Christians, and now later in my career research on Christianophobia that is more sympathetic to Christians, I can tell you that it is easier to get your stuff in the better journals and book publishers when you are criticizing Christians. I consider my career a natural experiment that tests the proposition that publishing critical work is harder in sociology of religion journals. In my experience, the opposite is true. But if scholars believe it is extra difficult to publish work critical of religion in sociology of religion journals, then try publishing something critical of the feminist movement in a gender journal or the LGBT movement in a sexuality journal or blacklivesmatter in a race journal. I suspect you will find much more powerful examples of bias if you attempted to conduct the research in the previous sentence.

Do the meetings at the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) meetings resemble worship services? In addition to having attended those meetings, I have also attended academic meetings for the American Sociological Association, Midwestern Sociological Society, Southwestern Social Science Association, and Southern Sociological Society. Set aside the American Sociological Association as that is unique. The other meetings are basically similar to the SSSR except that the focus of that meeting is entirely on religion – which makes it more fun for me. I am a Christian, but I know plenty of non-Christian academics at SSSR. I do not go around asking to pray for them, and I cannot conceive of my other Christian scholar friends doing that. I do not pray during a paper presentation, and I would be surprised if the Christian scholars I know did. (Although at times I admit that if I am in a very boring session then sometimes my head may be down as if in prayer, but it is just sleep.) I am not saying that the episode Sumerau talked about did not happen. I am saying that it would be highly unusual. The meetings are professional occasions where we go to get caught up on the latest research, learn the latest gossip, hug some old friends, and make connections with potential future research partners. I not only study religious congregations, but I am in one almost every Sunday for my own spiritual growth. I have also gone to a wide variety of worship services for personal reasons and for research. Meetings at the SSSR are no more like any worship service I have attended than any other professional academic meetings.

To this point I have merely compared my experiences to Sumerau’s. There is no reason for a nonbiased reader to accept my experience over his. But there is also data to bring to bear on this issue. This data indicates that academia, and especially the social sciences, do not favor Christians but rather are biased against them. Some of the data comes from my own research. In my book, Compromising Scholarship, I discuss the survey I sent out to academics in a variety of fields. I asked the respondents if they would be more or less willing to hire a candidate for a position in their department if they knew some characteristic of that person. Among the characteristics I tested for was religious affiliation. I found that academics were less willing to hire a conservative Protestant than any of the other religious, political, sexuality, lifestyle or age characteristics asked about. About half of all academics are less willing to hire someone simply if they find out that he or she is a fundamentalist or evangelical. Assuming that these respondents are telling the truth, we have a basic case of religious discrimination.

Other research indicates that I should not doubt the honesty of my respondents. Tobin and Weinberg also found that academics have a great deal of anti-Christian hostility. Rothman and Lichter (“The vanishing conservative: is there a glass ceiling?”) documented that cultural conservative academics are systematically in lower status academic positions even after controlling for academic achievement. Finally, we have court cases such as Mike Adams where the university clearly engaged in anti-Christian discrimination by denying him a promotion. Perhaps there is a recent court case won by an atheist or agnostic academic who was denied a promotion based on their lack of religious beliefs, but I do not know of it. If someone can produce such a case occurring at a non-sectarian campus, I would like to know about it. These findings make my point that arguments of a pro-religion bias do not hold up when we get beyond the stated experiences of secular professors. Christians do enjoy advantages in certain areas of society, but in academia the evidence suggests that they are treated as a minority group.

But I know the comeback to these research findings. While it is pretty clear that anti-Christian, rather than pro-Christian, bias is the issue in academia, it may be the case that the reverse is true within the subfield of religion. Perhaps within that small segment of academia, Christians have taken over and the non-religious operate at a disadvantage. Fortunately, when I did my survey, I asked the respondents in sociology about their area of specialty. Of the 380 respondents who worked in an academic setting, 29 of them are in sociology of religion. So I compared those respondents to the rest of academic sociologists on my 7-point scale indicating how willing they are to hire individuals from certain religious groups. Higher scores indicate that the respondent is more willing to hire someone because of a particular religious identity while 4 indicates that this particular religious identity does not matter. Here is what I found when I compared the results on my respondents being asked about a variety of different religious groups. (Please excuse the formatting as I have not figured out how to do good tables with this program.)

Sociologists of Religion Everyone else
Jews 4.143 (28) 4.051 (331)
Muslims 4.036 (28) 4.012 (331)
Evangelicals 3.607 (28) 3.387 (331)
Fundamentalists 3.286 (28) 3.19 (332)
Atheists 4.071 (28) 4.027 (329)

None of these differences are significant. I am under no illusion that these are publishable findings as I clearly lack statistical power. But these results are still informative. There may be some advantage for evangelicals applying for positions in sociology of religion relative to other subfields, but even then the average score is not at the 4.0 level where a person is not penalized for being an evangelical. So even though an evangelical scholar applying for a position faces less potential discrimination when applying for a sociology of religion job, he or she still does face potential discrimination. On the other hand, while not significant, atheists fair better in sociology of religion than other sub-fields. There is no evidence that secular academics are being punished for their non-belief. If anything, since the scores for evangelicals are relatively higher among sociologists of religion, the relative degree of privilege secular academics enjoy in other subfields appears to be less in sociology of religion than in the rest of the discipline. That loss of privilege may help to account for the sentiment some secular scholars have that they are being treated unfairly.

It can be argued that I am not engaging in a valid comparison. Sumerau complained about his opportunity to publish while I am looking at whether someone can be fairly hired into an academic position. But in the absence of perfect evidence, we have to look at the evidence we do have. That evidence indicates that there is not general bias against secular individuals in sociology of religion. If new empirical evidence can be produced that indicates a bias against secular individuals, then I am more than willing to look at how things should be changed. I would like to think that given the strong evidence that there is a general academic bias against conservative Christians that secular scholars will also look at how we can address this problem. I have been disappointed by the response of those scholars, and their failure to support Regnerus does not bode well for their willingness to protect scholars with whom they disagree.

Regardless of whether such scholars are willing to address the anti-Christian bias in academia, we must be careful not to allow claims of pro-Christian favoritism to worsen this bias. Christian scholars should be allowed to compete for positions, publications, and grants on an even field with everyone else. I fear that worrying about an anti-secular bias that has not been demonstrated to exist will make it even harder for Christian academics.

What Liberty University can teach Elite Colleges and Universities

A few weeks ago my facebook feed was somewhat abuzz with the fact that Senator Bernie Sanders was speaking at Liberty University. Yes, that Bernie Sanders, self-described socialist, speaking at that Liberty University, the education institution founded by the man who started the Moral Majority. It was not a news event I ever anticipated occurring. Even though I am a Christian, like many people I had stereotypes about the narrowmindedness of Christian colleges and did not consider that one as conservative as Liberty University would require its students to listen to a socialist.

I will spend the bulk of this blog discussing the implications of Liberty University’s decision. However, I first want to compliment the senator. It is not easy to speak in front of an audience who deeply disagrees with you. He probably did not gain one extra vote from a Liberty student by his talk. But he is committed to his vision of a better society and willing to go places where he does not have an admiring crowd. I give sincere kudos to Senator Sanders and if more of us would be willing to try to communicate with those we disagree with, then we would have a better society.

However, the senator would not be able to speak before the students if Liberty had not invited him to do so. Furthermore, the actions of the students were commendable. Most of them disagreed with most of what the Senator had to say. But they let him say it, and they treated him with respect. There was no protest. There was no attempt to shout the Senator down. No, they did not give him enthusiastic applause. But we do not have to agree with someone to give him/her the right to tell us his/her ideas. He was allowed to inform them of his ideas, and they did not interrupt him.

I cannot help but compare this event to what happens so often when unpopular speakers come to many of our state and elite campuses. There are a wide variety of incidents that illustrates the unwillingness of students and faculty on those campuses to allow for such free speech. Perhaps a striking example is when students at the University of California at Berkeley protested the commencement speech by Bill Maher. The political distance between Senator Sanders and the average Liberty University student has to be much greater than between Maher and these progressive students. However, Maher has been highly critical of Islam and in doing so, broke one of the tenets embedded in Education Dogma. For certain students this meant that he should not be allowed to address other students, even though he likely agreed with them on most other subjects. Contrast this reaction to the politeness shown the Senator by the students at Liberty. Consideration and tolerance was found at the Christian school instead of the place where the modern free speech movement originated.

At least in this situation, the University of California stood by Maher and let him give his speech. Christine Lagarde, Robert Birgeneau and Condoleessa Rice were all invited to speak and then later disinvited, or withdrew due to pressure, from delivering their commencement address. The reasons given may vary, but essentially students and faculty members protested these speakers and the administration caved to their demands. Colleges and university are supposed to be places where we encounter different ideas. But influential segments on many campuses do not want graduating students, who should be fully prepared for dealing with different ideas, to hear alternative opinions. This type of censoring is not even including the type of silencing that comes from mechanisms such as safe spaces and trigger warnings. Whereas Liberty University brought different ideas directly to their campus, it seems that many of our highly esteemed colleges and universities work hard to keep them out.

What is ironic is that Christian schools such as Liberty University are typically stereotyped as being unwilling to consider alternate points of view. As I stated earlier, I have bought into those stereotypes. One blogger argues that Christian colleges should not be accredited because they do not allow for intellectual freedom. I am certain that this blogger would put Liberty University squarely in the “do not accreditate” category even though Liberty appears to better prepare its students to hear opposing opinions than the University of California. Accreditation is important for helping an institution of higher education serve its students, and this stereotype can have important implications for the freedom of Christian colleges.

While I have heard this stereotype many times, the incident at Liberty helped me realize that I have yet to see any empirical evidence that supports it. I know in theory nonreligious colleges and universities should be free to pursue whatever ideas academics come up with. In reality, there is a culture of conformity that inhibits the freedom of academics to pursue all ideas. Sociology of science is a subset of epistemology exploring how science is not an objective search for truth, but that search is influenced by the social and psychological pressures placed on the scientist. For example, Thomas Kuhn’s work suggests that scholars operate in an ideological paradigm that provides them the answers to the questions they study before they even analyze the data. In a similar way, there are paradigms on our non-sectarian campuses that provide answers to questions before we have even fully asked the question. This type of social, and sometimes even institutional, pressure can be just as limiting to academic freedom as the theological doctrines commonly found at Christian educational institutions.

I am starting to believe that non-Christian colleges are at least as narrow-minded in their epistemological approach as Christian schools. When I did research on academic bias, I found that about half of all academics are willing to discriminate against conservative Protestants when they apply for an academic position. Clearly, limiting the ability of individuals from a given social group to participate in academia can serve to limit the scholarly ideas from that group. This is a clear violation of the academic freedom allegedly not found at Christian colleges. When I went back to my data and looked to see if those at Christian colleges are more unwilling to exclude non-Christians from their jobs, I found that the degree of exclusion was about the same as their non-religious counterparts. I did not see evidence that Christian educational institutions were more restrictive in their willingness to hire than non-Christians, despite the doctrine requirements that undoubtedly are part of their hiring process. Looking at who academics are willing to hire, I do not have empirical reasons to think that there is more academic freedom at non-sectarian educational institutions than sectarian ones.

To be fair, I have heard some students complain that they are not free to start progressive political or sexual minority student organizations on Christian campuses. I take them at their word and am willing to believe that some Christian educational institutions restrict the type of student organizations allowed on campus. A few years ago, this would have been a killer argument for pronouncing Christian colleges and universities as intolerant. But lately some non-sectarian educational institutions have found a way to deregister Christian groups from their campuses. If Christian groups do not open up their leadership to non-Christians, then they are not allowed to be official student organizations. It is not only Christian schools that unfairly restrict student organizations, and I suspect that we will see more non-sectarian schools employ these tactics in the coming years. Ironically, many who attempt to defend such “all-comers” policy would be quick to argue that prohibiting progressive students at Christian colleges to start their own organizations is evidence of intolerance.

I am not arguing that Christian colleges are more open to alternate ideas than other educational institutions. I am arguing that we do not have any empirical evidence to state that this is not the case. The perception that religious institutions value intellectual diversity less than other types of institutions is based more upon prejudices and confirmation bias than actual systematic research. I am certain that individuals will produce personal stories about the intolerance they have experienced at the hands of Christians at sectarian educational institutions. But such anecdotal accounts are not the sort of scientific evidence needed to justify removal of accreditation or the stereotypes that I have, until recently, accepted myself. There are many Christians who can also tell stories of intolerance experiences at elite and/or state schools as well. What is needed is the type of academic research where we can properly test the degree of ideological intolerance that we may find on both types of campuses. Without such scientific research to document that there are higher levels of intolerance at Christian campuses, we run the risk of supporting one type of intolerance while ignoring other manifestations of this problem.

When I heard of Senator Sanders speaking at Liberty University and the way students treated him, one of my first reactions was that students in many of our elite institutions have something to learn from Liberty students. Our progressive open-minded liberal students from elite schools have something to learn about political tolerance from the “intolerant” Christians at Liberty. Soon afterward I became acquainted with a professor who works at Liberty. She informed me that the university has a tradition of inviting progressive speakers to the campus. She told me that, when he was alive, Ted Kennedy had spoken on campus more than once. She informed me that the philosophy at Liberty is to foster a politically conservative environment, but one where their students are exposed to ideas from a variety of sources. Oh that we would see this at non-sectarian schools with a more progressive agenda. Despite the common stereotype that colleges like Liberty are a cocoon protecting students from non-Christian, non-conservative ideas, it seems plausible that their philosophy does the opposite. In light of the actions of Liberty University in regards to Sanders and University of California in regards to Maher, perhaps it is time to retire this stereotype – at least until we gain empirical evidence supporting it.

Is Forgiveness a Secular Value?

Over the past few years I have heard some Christian apologetic speakers make a fascinating argument about secular societies. They argued that these societies have borrowed much of their morality from the previous Judeo-Christian culture from which they emerged. For example, a value of honesty is not based on a secular understanding of reality but because it has been rooted in the Judeo-Christian history, individuals in secular societies still appreciate honesty as much as when they lived in a religious culture. This argument implies that it will take quite a long time for us to see what sort of moral values are truly connected to a culture devoid of religion. I do not pretend to know exactly what that culture will look like. Truly secular societies are relatively new in our global society, and it is too early to know all of the consequences of a secular society. But with some speculation, it might be possible to get a preview of some values that may emerge in a secular world.

So I will predict one value that may develop over time and has already begun to surface in our society. I do this with the necessary caveat that social scientists often make lousy forecasters. However, it can be an interesting and useful exercise to consider the potential implications of a society without religious legitimation. Looking at a few social science studies and considering the ramifications of a secular philosophy may help us to anticipate what may happen in secular places like Europe and Canada and what might happen if those advocating secularization theory are right about the United States.

In the past, I have blogged about the lack of forgiveness in my society. When I first blogged about that, it did not occur to me that this may be linked to our growing secularization. However, as I consider the implications of a less religious society, it has occurred to me that what I was observing in the lack of forgiveness was consistent with the new attitudes that have developed in a secular ideology. Thus, one potential value that may change over time as we become more secular is a movement away from forgiveness and towards an expectation of performance. I struggle to find a good term for this and after a time decided on the term “mercilessness.” It is not a perfect term as there is an implication of cruelty that I do not wish to make. However, this term does explain the unwillingness to forgive that I do wish to enunciate. I am open to a better term, but for the remainder of this blog entry, I will use mercilessness as the description of this new secular value.

To see if forgiveness is compatible with a secular society, it is useful to see if there is a difference of willingness to forgive on an individual level. I did not want to do an extensive assessment of all available research on this research question but there are some studies indicating that religious individuals are more forgiving than secular individuals. I am open to being shown other research to the contrary, but it does not surprise me that the religious are more forgiving as I consider forgiveness to be a more innate quality for people of faith. There may be other religious systems where forgiveness is not seen as salient as it is in an evangelical Christian framework and I cannot speak for them. But there is a powerful motivation to forgive within Christianity. In my faith tradition, there is an emphasis on introspection and grace that naturally leads to a value of forgiveness. Of course this is not to say that all of us, or even myself, are perfect in implementing that value. Ironically, if we were perfect in implementing any of our values, we probably would not need to be forgiven.

I do not perceive forgiveness an important part of secular ideology is because it is based on the notion that humans are perfectible. So if humans are perfectible, then we must ask why we are we not perfect? The answer depends on what variation of secular ideology one accepts. Marxists envision class issues as corrupting the human spirit while feminists see the culprit as patriarchal values. And of course other variations of secular ideology will locate other possible barriers to human perfectibility. But the key common component is that humans are perfectible, or at least can become close to perfect, and thus in secular ideology, we must make an effort to obtain perfectibility. This creates little tolerance for those that are not towing the line of how humans should act. Society must change to support the new ideal human. Those who do not head towards that new ideal should face sanctions that encourage them to head towards that ideal. The sanctions would not only influence those individuals to act in an acceptable manner but would serve as a warning to others who may be future violators of the required norms.

This is where mercilessness comes into play as forgiveness can interfere with our ability to apply those sanctions with sufficient force. I have heard secular individuals complain about individuals who seek forgiveness after being caught in a transgression. They complain that this is an easy way out and, more importantly, that it allows people to continue to do what is wrong. I think this interpretation misses the point of what true repentance is about but that is not surprising since such individuals looking at the value of forgiveness from outside our faith likely lack the context of what is meant by repentance and forgiveness. But this attitude is reflective of how to handle shortcomings when using a value of mercilessness. People must be punished and ostracized so that we have sanctions that are powerful enough to allow the emergence of our ideal society. Forgiving those individuals weakens the sanctions and gets in the way of their effectiveness.

It is an important moral question on whether forgiveness or mercilessness should be the higher priority in our society. Like any value, there is a downside to forgiveness when it is misused. There have been times when we have forgiven others before it was even asked by them. In those situations there is no real repentance and little chance for the person to learn from what they did wrong. And then there is the tendency to forgive those we like or agree with more readily than those we do not like or agree with. In that case, forgiveness merely becomes another weapon to use in intergroup conflict. As much as forgiveness is part of my belief system, I recognize that it is not a panacea nor is it a value that cannot be abused. The abuse of forgiveness is why there is a certain appeal for mercilessness to correct these externalities.

While there are times where forgiveness gets in the way of what is needed in our society, I am not sure if we want to live in a society where forgiveness is not easily available. Consider how easy it is to be in trouble today. If we do wrong when we are young, then that can cost us a job many years later. Ask Josh Dugger. If we make a bad joke, we can lose our current status. Ask Martin Brashir. If we get in a fight with our daughter and say awful things it can cost us our reputation. Ask Alex Baldwin. In no way am I defending the actions of these men (or woman like Paula Dean). And of course when we are caught doing wrong once, we should be watched more carefully to see if we have truly repented. This justifies continual criticism of Dugger and Baldwin who are multiple offenders. But let us be honest and stipulate that there are those who will never offer forgiveness after the first transgression as they subscribe to a type of mercilessness that discounts any relief from punishment. And I wonder if people must pay for the rest of their lives because of a past failing?

It is so tempting to condemn individuals who have done admittedly horrible stuff. But, here is the question we should ask ourselves. What if the moment you did the worst thing you ever did, or said the worst thing you ever said, was caught on a camera and then played for the entire world to see? Would that action or that statement be as bad as some of the actions alluded to in the previous paragraph? Should you lose your job and be treated as a leper the rest of your life because of that action or statement? I am guessing most of us would be very ashamed to have the worst moment of our lives recorded for the entire world to see. Most of us would want to be forgiven for that transgression. As a Christian I know that I enjoy a grace I do not deserve and have been forgiven for my transgressions against God and against others. So while I want to be careful not to misuse the value of forgiveness, I know that it is something I should not withhold from those who honestly repent and truly seek it from me.

So I do mourn the loss of that quality in our society. Perfectibility demands perfection and if our society is going to become more secular, then I envision a loss of an ability to forgive as one of the costs of that transition. But I do not know if we really consider how much it costs our society. We might think that if we are not caught on camera engaging in an awful act or saying something terrible, that we will be alright. But already I am catching myself being extra careful in what I say and how I say it. Even as I write my blogs I am very careful in how I express my ideas (I am certain that one day someone will pull a statement out of context to make me seem like a monster. That is one of the reasons why I use qualifiers in my writing). For some individuals, that may be pleasing in that I am kept in line with the current orthodoxy. But something great is lost. As an academic, I know how to write for scholarly journals and books. One must be careful to frame assertions with the proper qualifiers and passivity to allow precision in one’s arguments. However, I have also written Christian books where I can be more personable and am free to make stronger assertions in my language. The freedom I gain when writing to non-academics is part of what is lost when I feel the need to be so careful with my language that I cannot be truly myself in public. In a merciless society, we will see individuals work harder at managing their self-presentation, and it will be more difficult for us to get to know them on an intimate level because they will be afraid to show others aspects of themselves for which they will not be forgiven.

In some ways, this trend is a paradox. For years, I have heard how judgmental and how intolerant Christians are to those who do not follow Christian morals. Naturally, I do not deny that there are some judgmental Christians. I still remember, soon after I became a Christian, talking with those who seemed way too concerned that I dared to go to dance clubs or listened to rock music. Yet, in the past few years, I have seen a great deal more judgment come from non-Christian segments of society. Dare not affirm one of the tenets within education dogma and you will be stigmitized as Islamophobic, homophobic, racist, sexist or whatever the new “ist” or “phobic” is today. Engage in the wrong microaggression and prepare to be stigmatized. As bad as I have seen in some Christians as it concerns being judged, I never felt as on guard as I am today around certain secular individuals. And it is not just myself who feels this way. Many individuals understand that perfection is to be expected from those who have some degree of status.

Once again I understand that many individuals want a society where we are “on guard.” Perhaps such fear will make us better citizens. There is an argument that we should be merciless against certain social evils. I really am not trying to make a strong argument against this perspective. Indeed, if I were more secular I might want to have this perspective. I might not have the values of forgiveness and grace my faith has provided for me. I could see why I would want to make sure we have the proper social sanctions to produce whatever my idea of a utopian society is at that current time. So while my preference is for a society where we understand human frailties and shortcomings, I understand why others feel we need to punish those who do not measure up. I understand why the value of mercilessness is so desirable. But it simply is not the sort of society I want.

This has been an interesting thought experiment as to what a truly secular value system may look like. If mercilessness is, as I believe it to be, a value tied to a secular society then we should see more of this quality emerge if the percentage of irreligious individuals continues to increase. I do not know what other values might become part of a secular moral system. I envision mercilessness as an early precursor of other possible secular values. It would be fascinating, and useful, to consider what those values are as well as consider if this is the sort of society we want to have.