Shame on you Bowdoin College

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

Advice for Young Christian Academics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are Christians Stupid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Listening to You? – The Lesson of Donald Sterling

Donald Sterling is a pig. That is clearly not a controversial statement given all that we have learned of the displaced Clipper owner over the past month or so. It is not just the racist statements we recently learned about but it is also his history of potential racism and racial mistreatment. Even beyond that, I find it distasteful the way he paraded his ex-mistress in public. A fifty year marriage evidently meant nothing to him. Perhaps this makes me a prude but I still think that adultery indicates poor character and I have little respect for anyone who participates in it. But as bad as adultery is, it is much worse to exhibit it publically and humiliate one’s wife. Finally, he has a reputation as being a litigious person. I know that at times one must use the law to correct that which is wrong but litigious people strike me as people who care much more about their rights than what is generally right. I like to try to find the good in people, but Sterling makes it very difficult for me to do that with him.
Blasting Sterling is not a brave thing to do these days. There seems to be no one to defend him. How can he be defended given his many sins and shortcomings? Furthermore, he does not help his case when he states that the lesson he learned was that he should have paid his mistress off. I have no desire to defend him as a person. And yet there is an aspect of this controversy that does not sit right with me. I fear that it may set a precedent for our society if we do not confront it. That aspect is the violation of Sterling’s privacy. According to reports, his comments were recorded on what he assumed was a private phone call. No matter what I think about the fact that he has a mistress, it is reasonable for him to think that this was a private conversation and not a public speech. Yet, it was the source of his undoing. That is troublesome.
There is more than this single conversation that provides evidence to disturb us about Sterling. He has been the target of racial discrimination lawsuits. The government has accused him of housing discrimination. Somewhere there are poor Hispanic and Black residents who did not obtain housing as easily as they should have because of his racism. We could argue that the conglomeration of this evidence was the undoing of Sterling, but the reality is that it was the taped phone call that got all of the attention. All of the other evidence we have against Sterling was present before the taped call, but we did not really pay attention to that evidence until the phone call. It was the taped private conversation that was the precipitating event in Sterling’s downfall.
So if I am honest, the question of Sterling comes down to this – he is being punished because of a private conversation? He made repulsive disgusting statements in that conversation, but it was done with an expectation of privacy. What disturbs me is that he is being held accountable for a private conversation. Does this mean that the new standard is that we have to not only watch what we say publically but also privately? Is this getting into thought police territory? Think the right thoughts or you will be punished. In the case of Sterling this is not merely a loss of reputation but he has been fined and his ownership of the Clippers is being taken away from him. As ugly as his comments are, the implications of this is even uglier.
We already live in a society where there is more information out there on us than ever before and that information can be easily obtained. Generally, we ourselves put that info out there for all to see. I am amazed at what some individuals put on their facebook or twitter accounts. Those of us who write blogs need to be aware that our comments can be used against us in future years. However, that information is public and those who offer it have to be responsible for what they have said, as long as it is reported back in proper context. I retain the right to present myself publically in the way that I want to be presented and accept that I will be judged for that presentation. Fair enough.
But it is not fair when information about me that is not public can now be used to judge me. I am being told that I am responsible for my private conversations as well. It is not merely this taped private conversation. Freedom of information requests can be used to gain access to private emails. I am not a techie but I know that there are ways people can snoop on us and find out which websites we have visited. Information about where we live and work can be gained for a price. I have watched friends and colleagues of mine have their private worlds made public due to these sorts of techniques. I do not like hyperbole, but this does sound like what is expected in a totalitarian society.
It is tempting to ignore these ramifications because of the character of Sterling. Surely a nice person like I would not say something as despicable as he did. But I know that I have said things in private that I am not proud of. I would hate to be judged on the worst thing I have ever said in private. I get a feeling that all of us would have a sick feeling in our stomach if we were judged on the worst thing we ever said in private. I suspect that anyone’s reputation can be destroyed if that person had his/her private conversations aired. Furthermore, in a society with so much cultural hostility, anyone who takes a strong stance on anything will gain enemies who will desire to destroy such reputations. Yes we can feel good about the fall of Sterling, but if we are not careful we may face a similar fate if we move towards a society where our private, as well as public, conversations and ideas are held to such scrutiny.
The saving grace in the Sterling situation is that there is so much other information to justify the punishment he will receive. The lawsuits and accusations provide a fuller picture of who this man is. But what will happen when we have a case of someone saying a racist, sexist, anti-Semitic etc. thing that is totally in private and then that person loses his/her job. Has the Sterling example made us less sensitive to the loss of privacy that person has suffered from and the unfairness of how he/she is treated? Is this the precedent that will ultimately threaten the sense of privacy, that we have enjoyed? It is questions like these that force me to consider issues beyond the ugliness of Sterling and consider the larger ramifications of what has taken place.
One possible solution is that we as a society learn to ignore information gained by the violation of a person’s privacy. Thus no matter how bad it makes a person look, we as a public learn to negate any information we learn when his/her private conversation is disclosed to us. But ultimately that is not realistic. As concerned as I am for the violation of Sterling’s privacy I cannot dismiss the knowledge I have of his racial attitudes. My attitude towards him is forever changed.
So perhaps the only real solution is to make sure that we provide disincentives for individuals to violate the privacy of others. My understanding is that the recording of Sterling violated the law in California. What that means to a non-lawyer like me is that V. Stiviano and possibly whoever else released the taping to TMZ needs to be on the legal hook. But that is not good enough. I think TMZ should also be accountable. There is too much at stake here with our privacy. It would be acceptable to me if Sterling is able to sue TMZ for lost reputation and financial damages. It would be acceptable to me if he won a huge settlement – the type of settlement that would make a media organization think twice about running a taping of a private conversation. The idea of Sterling obtaining more money is not a desirable idea, but he is already a billionaire. The addition of a few hundred million dollars is not going to lead to any great changes in his life. But the loss of that money from TMZ may prevent the next media outlet from running the tape of a private conversation obtained by illegitimate means. So I believe that if I was on the jury of a civil trial of Sterling versus TMZ, given my current state of knowledge, I would rule in favor of Sterling despite the personal disgust I have for him so that I can make sure that TMZ is punished. There are simply too many other important issues of privacy at stake for me to allow my personal feelings to lead to any other decision.
Since I am not a lawyer I have no idea whether such a lawsuit is possible. If it is not, then we as a society may have to engage in informal sanctions against TMZ. Sterling has taken it on the chin over the past few weeks and the scorn launched his way is well deserved. Some have questioned the role of V. Stiviano in this fiasco and that is appropriate. TMZ should not escape unscathed for their participation in this mess. We as a public should begin to question those who are willing to violate our privacy. But I doubt that we will do this. We enjoy the tantalizing stories gained by the invasion of privacy of famous individuals. I fear that we do not consider the long term effects of this invasion and at some point we common people will lose our privacy. That will be a tragedy as I have stated that I do not want to be judged by the worst thing I have ever privately said. Do you?