This is quite relevant to recent events. My DePaul Religious Studies colleague Laith Saud's recent TED talk.
Building on my piece from yesterday, a great deal of my objection to the idea of having certain speakers on university campuses was rooted in the idea that, given the university's mission as a place where ideas can be debated and discussed, and where those ideas can advance intellectual inquiry, a speaker whose sole motivation was to offend others was not appropriate for a university setting. The response I got, initially on Twitter, but also in other contexts as well, was "well, who are you to judge whether it was intended to offend?" Or "Isn't offense in the eye of the beholder?" To which I have typically responded: "I believe it is possible to infer the intent to offend based on the record of the speaker." In other words, from what was known about Milo, and what was known about his rhetoric, and the substance-free nature of the writing in which that rhetoric was typically contained, it was possible to infer that his sole motivation was to offend a substantial portion of the student population. I would extend that argument to the group that invited him: I think we can infer from their invitation to Milo that their entire motivation was to offend the progressive student groups that they knew would show up to protest the event.
Certainly the fact that Milo's events had been protested in a similar way at other venues suggests that everyone involved knew what the likely outcome was going to be. I'd suggest it was exactly what they were hoping for. But I want to expand the conversation beyond this particular speaker on this particular occasion and ask whether or not we can be permitted to infer the intent to offend, generally speaking.
My point here is not whether we can know that people are, as a matter of fact, likely to be offended by a particular speaker. I'm not suggesting that the mere fact that people could be offended is a reason to bar a particular speaker. On the contrary, as I noted before, I think that speakers of all positions on the left-right spectrum, whose views may happen to offend some portion of the student population, certainly have a place as speakers in a university setting. For example, I believe that a pro-choice speaker should be permitted to speak at a Catholic university, even though many Catholic would be offended by them, because the argument about abortion itself has merit, and having that argument in the midst of university life is part of the mission of the university. Similarly, I believe that a speaker advocating building a Trump-style border wall on the American-Mexican border should be permitted to speak, as that argument is part of the larger debate about immigration reform in the United States. I think in either case, it should be unsurprising if protestors showed up, and as in the case of Milo's event, I think it would be ill-advised if those protestors disrupted the event, but protest is certainly an appropriate response.
My question runs to a more difficult issue: To what degree are we permitted to infer that, when someone says something offensive, they are saying solely to offend, versus saying something for the purpose of advancing an important conversation which just happens to offend? The person advocating for abortion rights may indeed offend pro-life Catholics, but that would be in the context of advocating a point of view about the rights of women over their own bodies. Compare that to a speaker who was invited to a Catholic university for the purpose of trampling on a consecrated communion wafer. The later speaker would clearly have no goal except to offend Catholics, and I think it would be well within the purview of the university to exclude them.
Similarly, in the case of the advocate of the border wall, while their viewpoint would be offensive to many, and certainly to me, as long as it was not couched in an argument that Mexicans are in some way innately inferior human beings, but in say economic terms, then offensive as it would be, it wouldn't be solely offensive. On the other hand, inviting a member of the Aryan Nations to campus would clearly have no other purpose but to inflame anger and cause offense to people of color around campus.
Again, if you know what someone's record of speech and action is, I believe it is entirely possible to infer intent from action, and to infer future intent from past action. We do it all the time. A substantial part of human interaction in every context involves the inference of internal states from external actions. Much of human language is about negotiating the differences between what people say and what they intend. And of course, as imperfect creatures, we often get that wrong. But I would suggest that we get these things wrong most in ambiguous, marginal cases where what is being communicated is unclear, or the connection between external act and internal state appears to conflict. But again, to use the communion wafer example: Someone who came to campus for the express purpose of doing that would leave no ambiguity with regard to their goal of offending.
But then the rejoinder would no doubt be: Well shouldn't people have the right to act in an explicitly offensive manner? On the one hand, in your own home, I suppose you can act as offensively as you want. If you can find people who are willing to pay for you to be offensive, you can take the show on the road. If you set up your soap box in a public park, you can be as offensive as you please as long as you obey park rules. But that's not what a university exists to promote. If you are offensive because you are presenting controversial ideas that are otherwise of worth in advancing the intellectual mission of the school, then a university can and should permit that to take place. But no one has a right to be offensive in the context of a university setting, even when presenting controversial ideas. To put it another way: If someone is presenting an idea I disagree with, then it is not a refutation of their idea for me simply to say that I find it offensive. However, if a person is acting in such a way that they are advancing no real idea, but simply trying to get a rise out of me, then to respond by saying "You are simply being offensive" is indeed a refutation. It's saying, effectively, "You are not advocating an idea that is capable of response or rejoinder, but simply trying to be offensive for offensiveness's sake."
Take the communion wafer example again. Let's give the example some detail. Suppose I were to invite a member of the Church of Satan to campus to advocate for the idea that religion was false, that would be an acceptable speaker for a university setting, even a Catholic university setting. But if, as an illustration of his contempt for religion, he pulled out a communion wafer and trampled on it, that would cross the line to pure offense. It is entirely possible to make the anti-religion argument without the offensive act. And making that argument may indeed offend some people. The simple fact that the speaker is from the Church of Satan may offend some people. But those things are offensive in the context of advancing a conversation that is part of the university's mission. The trampling of the communion wafer, on the other hand, is not.
To push it a step further. If we knew that the particular speaker was in the habit of coming to campuses in order to trample communion wafers, then I would argue that it would be perfectly acceptable to say that the speaker was not welcome, because we, once more, can infer his intent to offend based upon what we know he had done in the past.
Next question: suppose our communion-trampler somehow bypassed the university administration and got invited anyway. When word got out, a group of Catholic students decided to protest the speaker, and what's more, some of them decided that they were going to interfere with the speakers act of wafer-trampling. What would we say about their actions? I honestly am not 100% sure. Would the university president have apologized to the member of the Church of Satan if those students succeeded in shutting down the event? I don't know. What I do know is that the problem started when the decision was made to invite the speaker who was known for committing such an act.
As I've argued elsewhere, given the substance-free nature of Milo's offensive rhetoric, and given the demonstrated tendency of his followers to respond to his opponents via intimidation, I believe that the original sin in this entire drama was the decision to allow him to speak at DePaul in the first place. I think it was entirely possible to infer his intent to offend based upon his past actions, and that those actions gave a good indication of what was likely to happen.
What university policies should exist to prevent this kind of thing from happening in the future? I admit I am not sure. Where should the precise boundary be between acceptable and unacceptable speakers? I'm not sure about that either. I'm not even 100% sure that Milo fell on the wrong side of that line, though as I've argued, I have a strong suspicion that he does. But I do think that ultimately we should recognize that not every speaker is acceptable in the context of a university, and determining which are, and which aren't, is part of the university's mission.
For the past several days DePaul University has been dealing with the aftermath of a visit by alleged journalist and noted provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos writes for alleged news site Brietbart.com, and everything that I've seen suggests that they are perfect for each other, in that both the writer and the website are far more interested in stirring the pot then in actually engaging in journalism or seeking to enhance or promote democratic discourse. Zach Beauchamp at Vox.com has described the ideology that Yiannopoulos represents quite well:
Once you understand that Yiannopoulos thinks norms against offensive speech and action are themselves a terrible form of authoritarianism, then the rest of his persona starts to make a lot more sense. He sees himself as a hybrid journalist-activist, leading a movement he calls "cultural libertarianism" to protect "free speech" from the egalitarian bullies.
What "cultural libertarianism" is, in practice, is a lot of people on the internet saying intentionally offensive stuff. What better way to end the left's taboo on being sexist than by actually being sexist and getting away with it? ...
All of this, basically, reduces to high-profile trolling — a term that, if you aren't familiar with it, means posting stuff online that's deliberately designed to offend people, often purely because you think irritating other people is funny.
That's intentional. Yiannopoulos is, self-consciously, weaponizing trolling: taking tools invented by internet pranksters and deploying them in his self-declared war on the cultural left. His stunts are designed to appeal to a warped sense of humor as much as they are to help batter down liberal taboos. He thinks things like pretending to be a BuzzFeed editor and tweeting stuff like "#FeminismIsCancer" is a "hilarious" way to stick it to stodgy liberal elites.
Yiannopoulos was invited to campus by the DePaul Republicans. This provoked a reaction among many of the DePaul students who, as it turns out, finds making intentionally racist and sexist comments far less hilarious than Yiannopoulos and his fans. A student group organized protests outside the event, and some students opted to disrupt the event, blowing whistles and shouting Yiannopoulos down. Things escalated from there, as Yiannopoulos decided he was unhappy with the security response and took to the streets. The DePaul Student Center was shut down and eventually Yiannopoulos left and the protestors dispersed. The next day, President Dennis Holtschneider wrote an email to the campus community condemning the disruption and apologizing to Yiannopoulos and the College Republicans. This letter was the first I knew about either the event or the protests.
The apology, it seems, satisfied nobody. The Yiannopoulites found it insufficiently groveling, while many students and faculty at DePaul found it outrageously conciliatory, given the content of Yiannopoulos' words. Meanwhile, things continued to escalate at DePaul, as anti-Mexican graffiti was found on campus, and then a noose was discovered in a student dorm. Several of my faculty colleagues were subject to some fairly severe harassment on Twitter. I posted a tweet in support of one colleague, and then turned in.
I woke up Thursday morning thinking about the question of how it was that someone like Yiannopoulos, who did not really have anything of genuine intellectual worth to add to the discourse of a university, had gotten invited to speak. Of course, people get invited to do a lot of things at universities. Some are invited to give academic lectures, some are invited because they represent a controversial point of view, or because they are public figures. Some are comedians. But whatever the purpose for which someone is invited to speak at a university, it occurred to me that what they offer ought to be consistent with the academic mission of the school. It needn't agree with any particular political position, or even, I would argue, in the case of DePaul, be consistent with Catholic teaching, in order to be worth of a hearing. But it should rise to some minimal threshold of intellectual worth in order to be worthy of inclusion in university programming.
With this in mind, I took to Twitter once again, and posted the following series of tweets.
If one comes to a college to say something that has no intellectual worth can interrupting them be a violation of their right to speak?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
If a student group brings a speaker to campus for the express purpose of offending others, does that person have any genuine right to speak?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
If a student group wanted to bring a speaker to defend the Rwandan genocide, would they have a right to do so? Where is the boundary here?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
Some things are clearly on one side of the protected speech boundary, some things are clearly on the other, but how do find the line?— Scott Paeth (@ScottPaeth) May 26, 2016
These comments were intended to raise precisely the question I noted above: What is the purpose for which any particular speaker is brought to campus? And what are the limits to what kinds of discourse are permissible.
Given that I have a very small community of Twitter followers, and that I hadn't used any hashtags to draw attention to the tweets, I figured it would promote some mild discussion among my followers -- if that -- and that would be the end of it. I'd continue to ruminate on the topic, and probably no more would come of it. Oh, how wrong I was!
Apparently, I eventually got retweeted by Yiannopoulos himself, or at least one of his more prominent hangers-on, and the tweets went viral. Before I knew it, I had well over half a million impressions on Twitter. That in itself was surprising, but what was even more surprising was the degree of vitriol, as well as the complete lack of comprehension, represented by the response to my words. My initial reaction was amusement, as most of the responses weren't actually interested in engaging me, but insulting me. Again, based upon everything I know about Yiannopoulos and his minions, this is pretty much the sum and substance of their MO. They never engage in thought when they can engage in purile name-calling. So, I responded with snark. Eventually though, real life called, and I realized that continuing to engage these folks was a classic case of feeding the trolls, so I moved on.
What I did not expect was the next round of attacks, which consisted of harassing emails and phone calls to my office. I came to find out that I was far from the only faculty member so targeted, and, like the racist graffiti and the noose, this all seemed to be grounded in the hostility of the Yiannopoulites. What's more, it occurred to me that, apart from the childishness and vulgarity of the response, it had a very specific intent, which was to intimidate Yiannopoulos' opponents into silence. The great irony of Yiannopoulos' whole routine is that under the guise of the defense of absolute free speech, it's real agenda is silencing those who would speak out against overtly sexist and racist commentary.
To be clear: There are plenty of people who would be perfectly welcome to speak at DePaul, regardless of the odious opinions that they held. But I return to what I suggested above: A person whose entire goal is quite literally nothing other than to be intentionally offensive is not worthy of an invitation to speak at an academic institution. Many of my respondents on Twitter seemed to be of the opinion that I was taking a stand against free speech in general, or that I was saying something that was contrary to the First Amendment, though this only demonstrated both that they hadn't read what I wrote and that they didn't understand the First Amendment. If Yiannopoulos got hold of a soap box and chose to stand on it in the park, I would have no objection to him being allowed to say whatever he wanted. If the College Republicans wanted to rent a private space off campus to hear him rant, I would have no objection. If he stood in the street off campus and said what he wanted, I would have no objection. My objection was to the use of university space and resources for the purpose of giving him a forum. This has nothing to do with the First Amendment, it has to do with he mission of the university.
Of course, then there is the matter of what should have been done once he was there. I was exceptionally proud of DePaul's students for organizing a peaceful protest in opposition to him. And I am sympathetic to the students who chose to disrupt the event. There may indeed by times and places where disruption is an appropriate tactic in opposition to genuinely vile speech. For example, I see no reason why a neo-Nazi should be given a hearing, and shouting one down seems to me to be a perfectly appropriate response. However, in the final analysis I think that the disruption of Yiannopoulos' event was a miscalculation, primarily because it gave Yiannopoulos and his minions exactly what they wanted. Once the event was interrupted, the story was no longer, as it should have been, how awful Yiannopoulos was and how outrageous it was to give him a forum at DePaul, and became about how he wasn't permitted to speak. Yiannopoulos was thus able to claim the moral high ground in spite of his vile rhetoric, even though it was undeserved, because the interruption seemed to run contrary to the commitment to free discourse in a university setting.
But again, to be clear, nothing that Yiannopoulos had to say was worth a hearing in a university setting. Explicit racism and misogyny don't have any place in democratic discourse. The idea that literally all voices deserve a hearing at all times and places is not an expression of free speech, rather it is a means of thwarting free speech by continuing to relitigate arguments that should be considered settled issues. Again, the goal is silence those who would speak out against entrenched privilege and systemic racism and sexism.
Returning to Zach Beauchamp's article in Vox, he makes an important point about the idea that Yiannopoulos and his followers are not actually racist or sexist, but only say these things for the purpose of being intentionally provocative, for the sake of the freest possible speech:
Even if he doesn't actually agree with these ideas and is just trying to be provocative. He's mainstreaming bigotry.
Beauchamp then goes on to discuss Yiannopoulos' relation to the "alt-right" community:
The alt-right is a group of online dissidents from mainstream conservatism. While they have a diverse set of beliefs and interests, they share one core belief: Mainstream conservatism is full of politically correct sellouts.
The alt-right encompasses a range of views. It includes among its ranks people who’d traditionally be just called white supremacists or white nationalists, people like Richard Spencer of the National Policy Institute (who coined the term "alt-right") or American Renaissance’s Jared Taylor. But it also includes people who reject bigotry, at least in its overt forms, but whose views are still too reactionary for the conservative mainstream.
Regardless, racism and sexism are essential elements of the alt-right movement; it could not exist in its current form without them. Alt-righters tend to oppose mass immigration on grounds that Latin Americans and Muslims dilute the excellence of white culture. They support what they call "white identity politics" — the idea that white Americans should organize and stick up for their own interests because minority groups do the same thing.
Hot arguments on the alt-right include the idea that African Americans are intrinsically dumber than white Americans, that society would be better off if women had fewer opportunities outside of the home, and that Nazism maybe wasn't all bad.
Yiannopoulos loves these guys.
At the end of the day, it doesn't matter whether Yiannopoulos or the alt-right are "sincere" in their racism and sexism. The point at which you incorporate racist and sexist rhetoric into your worldview, and advocate it as a matter of course in your speaking and writing, you are a racist and a sexist. The difference between someone like Yiannopoulos and a character like Borat is that Borat makes bigots the butt of the joke, Yiannopoulos makes women and people of color the butt of the joke. And to excuse that by saying it was "only" a joke, or that it's satire, or that it's insincere simply doesn't wash.
And so that brings me back to my main point: If Yiannopoulos chose to rave in the streets of Chicago about women or African Americans, I'd gingerly walk past him on my way to something that was actually important to do, and shake my head that there weren't better services for someone so obviously disturbed. But to have him at DePaul University elevates him and diminishes the school. The fact that there were students who chose to be provoked by him in exactly the way he wanted to provoke them is unfortunate for DePaul's reputation, but for my part I'm far more worried about the idea that there are DePaul students who would hear or read anything he has to say and conclude "this is a guy we should have on campus." That is a far bigger indictment of DePaul University than anything else.
Wheaton College has made the news this week for putting a tenured professor on "administrative leave" for having asserted that Christians and Muslims worship "the same God." Here's a brief account of the details via Inside Higher Ed:
Wheaton College, a Christian institution in Illinois, has suspended Larycia Hawkins, an associate professor of political science who has attracted considerable attention for saying she would wear a hijab throughout Advent to express solidarity with Muslims. A statement from the college said the suspension was not for her wearing the hijab, but because of "significant questions regarding the theological implications of statements" she has made. "Wheaton College faculty and staff make a commitment to accept and model our institution's faith foundations with integrity, compassion and theological clarity. As they participate in various causes, it is essential that faculty and staff engage in and speak about public issues in ways that faithfully represent the college's evangelical statement of faith," said the college's statement on the suspension.
The particular statement that got Professor Hawkins into trouble, as described by Christianity Today is this: "“I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book, ... And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.”
There are a number of strands of this controversy which are difficult to unravel. On the one hand, there's the question of academic freedom, in that as a faculty member at a university, Professor Hawkins should be permitted to make statements in her capacity as a professor without fear of institutional reprisal. Yet, at many religiously based colleges and universities today, those rights are to one degree or another curtailed. Yet it undermines Wheaton's credibility as the "Evangelical Harvard" as it claims to be.
Then there is the issue of Professor Hawkins' decision to wear a hijab in solidarity with Muslims. Wheaton insists that this was not a factor in their decision. And perhaps it wasn't, but it's hard to disentangle her public display of solidarity from the words she used to express that solidarity. It seems that Wheaton was uncomfortable with the degree to which professor Hawkins was acting "too Muslim" for them. As Miroslav Volf noted in the Washington Post today: "When Hawkins justified her solidarity with Muslims by noting that as a Christian she worships the same God as Muslims, she committed the unpardonable sin of removing the enemy from the category of 'alien' and 'purely evil' other. She also drew attention to the simple fact that most Muslims aren’t enemies."
Then there is the issue of whether Professor Hawkins' defense of her position is "too Catholic" for Wheaton, given the school's history of firing faculty for the "crime" of converting to Catholicism. But at bottom, the school's claim is that she has violated its statement of faith via her assertion that Christians and Muslims worship "the same God." But why should this be controversial?
Certainly there are Christians who are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that Christianity has anything at all in common with Islam, as well as those who can't comprehend how Christians and Muslims could worship the same God. However, Islam has always insisted that the God it worships is the God of Abraham, the same God attested to in the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament. Thus it places itself firmly in the Abrahamic religious tradition. But the fact that Muslims believe they worship the same God as Christians and Jews doesn't necessarily require that Christians believe that, does it?
Well, Muslims assert that they worship the God who was revealed to Moses and the Prophets, just as Christians and Jews do. They assert that the God they follow is one God, just as Christians and Jews do. In many respects in fact, the way that Islam conceives of God is much closer to the Jewish conception of God than the Jewish conception of God is to the Christian conception of God. If Christians and Jews worship the same God, then in what sense would Muslims not do so?
Indeed, as Professor Hawkins statement notes, this position has been officially recognized within the Catholic Church. According to Nostra Aetate:
“The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth (Cf. St. Gregory VII, Letter III, 21 to Anazir [Al-Nasir], King of Mauretania PL, 148.451A.), who has spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God’s plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his Virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting.
Of course, as noted above, Wheaton has some issues with Catholics as well. But there is certainly nothing alien to the idea that Christians, Jews, and Muslims worship the same God. Of course, this is not the same thing as saying that we understand God in the same way. Our conceptions of God are relevantly similar, but not identical. This is again, clearest when one contrasts the Christian conception of God as one, but also triune, as eternally spirit, but also incarnate in the flesh of Jesus Christ. And in terms of salvation, as Christians we affirm that God saves humanity through Jesus Christ, while both Judaism and Islam believe that it is accomplished through God's law and covenant as attested in the Torah or the Quran. These are deep and relevant differences between these traditions, but acknowledging these differences is quite distinct from saying that each tradition is not, in its own way, seeking to follow the same God.
What's more, if, as many Christians affirm, all truth is one, then anyone seeking to faithfully follow God, whatever tradition they embrace, is following the same God. This position, which was powerfully illustrated by C. S. Lewis in his book The Last Battle implies that one can be mistaken in the substance of one's belief, while still truly following the true God. As Volf states:
All Christians don't worship the same God, and all Muslims don't worship the same God. But I think that Muslims and Christians who embrace the normative traditions of their faith refer to the same object, to the same Being, when they pray, when they worship, when they talk about God. The referent is the same. The description of God is partly different.
A key problem in understanding what is going on at Wheaton has to do with how they understand what it means to "do theology." This is a perennial problem within the evangelical community, and one that I've encountered in conversations with conservative Christians time and again. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: from the conservative Christian perspective, theology is not something that takes place in the context of a particular time and place. It is not a response to the revelation of God. It is not an attempt to engage in an understanding of the tradition to which we belong. Rather, conservative evangelical theology is about obedience to and adherence to authoritative texts, whether those texts from the Bible, particular creeds and confessions, or -- as in this case -- your school's statement of faith. This "received theology," is then declared to represent an uncrossable line, and the decision about who has or has not crossed that line winds up residing with authoritative bodies, like church bodies or university administrations. It constitutes a form of dogmatic theological positivism which does not allow allow any room for actual response to the contextual arena in which God is actually live and moving in the lives of believers.
Contextual theology, by contrast, recognizes that theological work is an ongoing and imperfect project, which takes place in the life of the church, in conversation with tradition and scripture, but always in light of the current situation in which it is being done. What it means to think contextually is to ask the question, as James Gustafson has put it: "What is God enabling and requiring us to do here and now?" This requires us to be open to the leading of God into new situations, to be willing to take risks on behalf of our faith in God, and to act confidently in God's grace when we stumble and fall. While the received, dogmatic theology of conservative evangelicalism is rooted in fear -- specifically fear that God will abandon us if we affirm the wrong propositions about the divine nature -- contextual theology reaches out to new situations in love, acting confidently in the knowledge that "perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18). Professor Hawkins was engaged in a contextual theology, rooted in love for her Muslim brothers and sisters, and in recognition that, as the God of Jesus Christ was the God of Abraham, both Christians and Muslims must worship the same God. Her response wasn't a rejection of Wheaton's Statement of Faith, but it also wasn't simply a dogmatic adherence to it. Rather, it was a contextualization of that statement in light of what God is enabling and requiring of us today.
In the final analysis, there is no good reason for Christians to assert that Muslims follow any other God than the one God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, even though they do not recognize our account of that revelation, or what we understand it to be telling us about God. What Wheaton has done is shameful, and as Volf notes, has more to do with Professor Hawkins' attempt to "de-other" Muslims, than with any matter of substance having to do with Christian faith or Wheaton's Statement of Faith. Professor Hawkins has done an admirable thing, and by doing so she has drawn attention to the continuing relevance of this key theological question to the ongoing relationship between Christians and Muslims in the United States. More's the pity that there are plenty of Christians around, happily condemning others to hell, who refuse to see the commonality between us and our Muslim brothers and sisters.
Note: This essay has been updated and expanded.
Rene Girard, the anthropologist and social critic, died shortly before last month's Paris bombings. Today Religion Dispatches reflects on his life and legacy. A key paragraph on the relationship between religion and violence:
For over three decades, scholars of religion have drawn on Girard to inform their work. Christian theologians and New Testament scholars have found Girard’s insights on the scapegoat mechanism of special salience. Girard has argued that myths attest to the scapegoat mechanism from the perspective of persecutors: the victim of mob violence is guilty. By contrast, the Gospels break with myth to present the victim as innocent. Living at a time of social crisis, Jesus is the victim of mob action; but his innocence, attested to by the Gospels, breaks apart the scapegoat mechanism, forever shaking the foundations of a culture built on sacrifice. Even scholars who disagree with Girard about his insights attest to his influence on their work; as a consequence, Girard has had a pervasive impact, especially on scholars who want to understand the dynamics of ritual, the meaning of myth, the origins and history of violence, and the relationship between violence and religion.
For my part, I've always appreciated Giard's ability to interpret and translate the anthropological substance of religious ideas in creative and socially constructive ways. His work has also be extremely useful to me in understanding and interpreting the idea of the atonement in Christian theology. He will be missed.
The recent study on the relative altruism of religious and non-religious children has come in for a bit of criticism since it was released a few months ago, to much fanfare. Initially the reporting on the issue was somewhat breathless (and, among my atheist Facebook friends, kind of gleeful). At the time, I withheld judgment, on the premise that a) pretty quickly some criticisms would emerge and that b) regardless, there's not a lot you can determine on the basis of a single study.
Sure enough, criticism began to emerge relatively quickly, including claims that the study overstates the statistical variance between its religious and non-religious subjects, and that its methodology is unclear. Here, for example, is one critique:
P-values are rotten evidence for anything (click here to learn), (2) Regression is deeply flawed and not what you think (click here, here, or here to learn), (3) Probability models do not prove cause (click here, (4) Asinine studies like this are common (click here) or here). And don’t forget that altruism was not measured, but that kids sticking stickers in envelopes was. How much influence did the researchers have, especially with the younger kids? I mean, did kids stick stickers because they wanted to prove to the whitecoat they were compliant or because they wanted to be liked or because they wanted to share? Altruism forsooth!
Similarly, critics have noted that the central terms being measured in the article -- "religion" and "altruism" -- are themselves notoriously difficult to define. Added to that, there were a great many variables that the researchers did not control for. And again, the researchers apparently did not account for the fact that the bulk of their identified "non-religious" children were all from China:
How do I know all of this? Educated guesswork. I could be wrong. But here’s how the numbers break down: globally, 323 families in the study identified as non-religious. And 219 kids in the study came from China. It is extremely unlikely that more than a handful of the Chinese families identified themselves as Christian or Muslim, and we know for sure that they mostly avoided identifying as Buddhist, because just 18 families in the whole 1,170 kid dataset did so. Nobody identified as Confucian. Just six families, worldwide, said they were “other.”
By elimination, that leaves around 200 Chinese kids for the non-religious side of the ledger, or around 60% of the total non-religious pool.
So what the study is picking up on as "non-religiousness" may be better described as a quality of the particular sample pool that was predominantly non-religious, that is, Chinese children from the Guangzhou province.
None of this would really matter that much -- because again, you can't determine much from one study under any circumstances -- if the authors did not try to draw sweeping conclusions from it:
“Nonreligious children are more generous,” explained a headline at Science magazine. “It’s not like you have to be highly religious to be a good person,” Decety told Forbes. “Secularity—like having your own laws and rules based on rational thinking, reason rather than holy books—is better for everybody.” Forbes headlined the article “Religion Makes Children More Selfish, Say Scientists.” (Decety tweeted a link to the piece). In the Forbes interview, Decety cautioned that there would be naysayers, at least among the anti-science crowd. “My guess is they’re just going to deny what I did—they don’t want science, they don’t believe in evolution, they don’t want Darwin to be taught in schools.”
See. Not only are non-religious children more generous, but secularity (defined, helpfully as "reason" over against "holy books") is "better for everybody." And, if you don't believe that this study proves that, it's not because the study is flawed, but because you're the kind of person who doesn't believe in science and wants to ban evolution.
Most of what I've gleaned here comes from an article at Religion Dispatches' The Cubit blog, which deals with issues at the intersection of religion and science. It goes over many of the problems with the study. But I want to stress that I think that the study is suggestive and bears follow up. It could very well be that a better constructed study, that does a better job accounting for independent variables, that has a clearer methodology, a larger sample size, and a more carefully defined central question, could reaffirm what this study does. It actually wouldn't surprise me much, because I don't think that religion of any kind necessarily makes a person better, or that its absence necessarily makes one worse. Religion is one factor among many in the construction of morality, and I'm Augustinian enough to know that sin lurks even in the hearts of the most pious. Yet, that said, I can't help but appreciate the conclusion of the Cubit writer, who writes:
In the past few decades, there has been a sharp divergence between those who study religion from within sociology and the humanities, and those who approach it from the side of social and evolutionary psychology. The humanists and sociologists have moved toward more and more granular snapshots of religious life, leaving behind the old, sweeping Religion is x, y, and z formulations that defined the good old days, when a dude in an office at Oxford could comfortably sketch out a theory of ritual based on secondhand ethnographies from remote tropical islands. Meanwhile, the social and evolutionary psychologists seem to be flying full-tilt in the direction of more and more grand theories of The Role of Religion in All Humanity.
From my semi-neutral post as a journalist who covers both fields, I’d like to suggest that the social and evolutionary psychologists are more full-of-shit than the humanists. The fact that someone like Decety feels comfortable taking his sticker games and making public comments about the fundamental nature of morality and secularity feels slightly surreal. (It’s not just in Forbes interviews. Here’s the final line of the paper: “More generally, [our findings] call into question whether religion is vital for moral development, supporting the idea that the secularization of moral discourse will not reduce human kindness—in fact, it will do just the opposite.”)
The problem is not that Decety and his colleagues’ results aren’t interesting, or even that they’re wrong—for all I know, all the world over, kids who engage more with certain ritual experiences are less kind to their peers.
The problem is that, absent robust evidence for his generalizations about the Nature of all Christians and Muslims, it is difficult to tell where Decety’s grand claims emerge from actual evidence, and where they may owe a debt to politicized beliefs about how religion in general, or specific religious traditions (i.e. Islam), motivate people to do bad things.
In an article at Aeon, philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel asks the question "are professional ethicists in fact more ethical than others" and arrives, unsurprisingly, at the answer of "no." However, the question that he spends a great deal of time pondering in the article is why, exactly, should that result be unsurprising to us? Shouldn't the presumption, at least among ethicists, be that knowing something about ethics would make you a better human being?
Schwitzgebel summarizes his results, based on empirical studies, as follows:
Ethicists do not appear to behave better. Never once have we found ethicists as a whole behaving better than our comparison groups of other professors, by any of our main planned measures. But neither, overall, do they seem to behave worse. (There are some mixed results for secondary measures.) For the most part, ethicists behave no differently from professors of any other sort – logicians, chemists, historians, foreign-language instructors.
In part, I think his results are the product of the particular choices that he made in what to evaluate. He writes:
Here are the measures we looked at: voting in public elections, calling one’s mother, eating the meat of mammals, donating to charity, littering, disruptive chatting and door-slamming during philosophy presentations, responding to student emails, attending conferences without paying registration fees, organ donation, blood donation, theft of library books, overall moral evaluation by one’s departmental peers based on personal impressions, honesty in responding to survey questions, and joining the Nazi party in 1930s Germany.
Part of the problem, I think, has to do with the fact that many of the examples that he offers are either matters of moral controversy, or simply aren't ethical problems at all. For example, whether it is moral or immoral to eat the meat of mammals is a subject on which there is genuine (and often pronounced) moral disagreement. It's not, as in the case of joining the Nazi Party, a situation where the right answer should be obvious to a moral person (alas that it wasn't obvious to a great many Germans in the 1930s!).
In the case of measures such as responding to student emails or calling one's mother, it's not clear to me that these are "moral" questions per se. Neglecting to respond to student emails may be unprofessional (or not!), and calling one's mother may be a tied to many social and interpersonal factors, but in any case, I would need a great deal of convincing to believe that any particular answer on these questions tells you much about the morality of the person answering. After all, what is the right answer to the question "How Often Do You Call Your Mom?"
Of course, Schwitzgebel acknowledges that some of these examples are trivial. But then, why bother to include them? I'm not sure littering, in itself, is immoral or unethical, though a great deal depends on what the context is in which the question is asked. It should be noted that Schwitzgebel's methodology attempts to account for these issues by first gauging whether respondents view an act as unethical and then asking whether they've done that act. He also adduces an argument he describes as "cheeseburger ethics" in which ethicists shouldn't be expected to act more morally than those around them, but can recognize their own moral mediocrity at the same time they are aware of the issues at stake.
And that's the point I think. What makes an ethicist an ethicist isn't that they are a morally superior human being, but that they are aware of the complexity of even approaching the moral question. One might hope that studying how ethics is done and how people behave should make you a better human being, but the reality is that it largely demonstrates the difficulty of formulating a cogent ethical worldview in the first place. Now, perhaps that would make many ethicists more cynical -- more likely to just decide ethics is bunk and do what they want regardless -- but Schwitzgebel's results don't suggest that either.
The difference between ethics as an academic category and, for example, courses on legal ethics in law schools, is that a legal ethics class gives you a set of instructions and demands that you obey them. Failure to comply with those standards represents an ethical lapse. The standard is clear, even if there are cases where the application is arguable. However, in the general realm of human behavior, what it means to act ethically is far dicier, and professional ethics are those people whose job it is to attend to the dicey nature of human morality.
If you reduce ethics to compliance with a set of rules, and then view morality as ensuring that you are on the right side of those rules, then yes, it might be surprising that ethicists aren't more ethical than average. But that's not what it is. If you want to be a moral human being, the proper course of action isn't to study ethics, but to cultivate virtue, a la Aristotle, practice acting with courage, justice, temperance, and wisdom, and over time, you may become more moral. If you want to know why its difficult for anyone, let alone ethicists, to effectively do this, study ethics.
Daniel Kirk is a Bible scholar whom I have admired for some time, and one of those Fuller Seminary faculty members that forced me, over time, to reconsider and raise my opinion of Fuller as an institution dedicated to both the Gospel and independent academic inquiry. His blog, Storied Theology is well worth reading, and his Lectiocasts on Homebrewed Christianity are valuable resources for sermon preparation. However, via James McGrath (another fine blogger and religion scholar), I come to see that I may have to reevaluate my reevaluation. On Daniel's own blog, he writes:
The more I study the question of homosexuality in scripture and the ancient world, the more complex I realize the issue is. I have worked some of those questions out here, publicly, expressly to help uncover that things are a lot more complicated than simply delineating what sexual practices are ok and which are not. Historical critical scholarship has made me question, and realize the need to question, what we say theologically and ethically.
For a number of my colleagues, it is not ok to ask these questions unless the answer we already have decided upon follows close on their heels.
Anyone at Fuller can tell you that over the past year to eighteen months clear signals have been sent that sexuality is not something that is open for any sort of conversation, much less debate.
For everyone, living with integrity is important.
For a small window of time, I caught sight of a Fuller in which integrity on the sexuality issue meant having conversations whose faithfulness was measured by standards of academic investigation and conversation.
For now, Fuller has chosen a different route. Integrity means ensuring that the stated position of the school is upheld and affirmed and not called into question.
These are different ways of measuring integrity. Neither is right or wrong. But I am disappointed that Fuller has chosen its way, as indeed a number of colleagues are disappointed with the route I chose. Most of all, I am disappointed that we cannot hold these differences in creative tension.
This difference is a major reason why I will not be at Fuller after next year.
This is deeply unfortunate for both Daniel and for Fuller. It's unfortunate for Daniel of course, because he'll be out of job (and I can only hope some fine school snaps him up quickly -- for all I know he already has plans!), and it's unfortunate for Fuller because it deeply undermines the sense that Fuller as an institution is capable of allowing for genuine theological scholarship, rather than the mere parroting of a particular brand of conservative bromide that is acceptable, one assumes, to Fuller's pool of donors. This is an affront to academic freedom generally, and to the freedom of theological inquiry in particular. As Daniel describes the problem of attempting to read the Bible in a scholarly way at Fuller:
I read scripture theologically. But as a New Testament scholar, I see my job as always listening first and foremost to the text in its historical context, and allowing its theology to be the first voice to which we respond. In the end, I will affirm creeds or confessions, if I do, because I believe they contain the right things to say at a given moment in time in which they were written, in light of what scriptures says.
In this, I thought I was just being a normal biblical scholar. And Protestant. And Evangelical.
However, a couple of my senior Bible colleagues found this disturbing. It was not enough to affirm that some confessions were correct. One had to start with the confessions and use them as hermeneutical guides in the strong sense. One had to like the idea that we define Christianity by what we believe. (All this despite the fact that we have Baptists and Anabaptists on faculty.)
Integrity is crucial for both of us. I define integrity as being true to the historical critical scholarship and bringing that into theological dialogue with the church. They define integrity as being true to the “Grand Tradition of the Church” and allowing that to guide what we see in and say about history.
So when I say, “The Synoptic Gospels show Jesus as an idealized human figure,” I have not said enough. If I cannot say, “And it also shows the divine Jesus, as we learn in the creeds,” I have articulated a theology that “is on a trajectory” away from our shared statement of faith.
If you are only allowed to ask the question as long as you agree in advance to adhere to the pre-given answers, then there is no genuine academic freedom at Fuller, or at any institution. I teach at a Catholic university, but one thing that I have always valued is the fact that I am allowed, as a member of the faculty, to pursue lines of theological and religious inquiry that diverge from what some deem to be the "traditional" Catholic teaching on myriad issues (which, given that I'm not Catholic, is undoubtedly a good thing). This has allowed DePaul to develop an excellent and diverse program in religious studies, as well as programs and Women's and Gender Studies and in LGBTQ Studies. Needless to say, not every member of the local magisterium is always pleased with that fact, and I'm sure some donors aren't as well. Yet the principle of academic freedom means that our freedom of inquiry is valued as essential to the work of the university, and as consistent with the traditions of Catholic higher education.
The fact that Daniel's institution saw things differently is a genuine shame, which is only partially obviated by the fact that Fuller is hiring Thomas Oord, recently let go from Northwest Nazarene University for having "incorrect" (read: correct) opinions on evolution. One can only hope that clearer eyed institutions will take advantage of Fuller's (and NNU's) folly and offer these scholars positions fitting their valuable and original scholarship.
I've recently been interviewed on a couple of podcasts, and I thought it would be worthwhile to bring them to your attention.
First, there's my two-part interview at Homebrewed Christianity:
Then there's my interview on 12Enough with Jonathan Malone.