Christians have not taken over Sociology of Religion

Christians have not taken over Sociology of Religion October 15, 2015

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.

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