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Friday, June 08, 2007

A difficult issue...

Sociologist Brad Wright recently posted on his blog about a study released by the Institute for Jewish and Community Research. This study basically sets out to discover the feelings of American faculty towards those who believe in god, whatever form that god or gods might take. The findings do indicate that American faculty are less religious than the public at large (particularly mathematics, natural science, and social science faculty) but they also suggest strongly that the academy is not totally inimical to religion. I say that because something like 73% of faculty indicate that they want their children to have some kind of religious training and, overall, most religious groups are viewed relatively favorably by faculty.

The major exception to these findings, as Dr. Wright points out, are evangelical Christians. The study asks respondents to rate various religious groups on an attitude thermometer, where 100 indicates maximum warm feeling, 50 indicates neutrality, and 0 indicates maximum cold feeling. It then reports on the percentages of faculty who feel "cold/hostile" towards certain groups. Presumably, "cold/hostile" means that the attitude thermometer score was below 50. The results, taken from the study, are interesting:

Indeed, based on these results, it would appear that 53% of faculty are cool/hostile towards evangelical Christians. This makes evangelicals, far and away, the most disfavored group, and the only one to crack the 50% mark. Speaking as someone in a social science department, I don't find this difficult to believe- evangelical Christians are not, in my experience, a particularly liked group among my colleagues or even those in neighboring departments.

Dr. Wright, who identifies himself strongly as a Christian, is disturbed by this research and goes on to discuss the implications of the study:

1) Double-standard. It indicates a double-standard regarding tolerance and diversity and academia. Imagine the outcry if so many professors disfavored other religious groups, such as Jews or Muslims? What if the same was said about other groups: gays, blacks, Hispanics, the disabled. I'm not saying that Evangelicals face more prejudice than these other groups in society in general, but rather prejudice against evangelicals is widely accepted in academia. In fact, when asked about these findings, a union representative defended this unfavorable posture as cultural resistance, not prejudice. (BTW, "cultural resistance" is highly valued in academia, ironic given our central place in the formation of culture). I can't imagine any professors arguing for "cultural resistance" against any of the other groups listed above.

2) Prejudice vs. discrimination? Does this mean that the unfavorable attitudes toward evangelicals gets translated into unfavorable treatment of them in the classroom? Probably. Central to studies of social psychology is the link between attitudes and behavior. It's not a perfect correlation and its strength varies by personal, situational, and attitudinal factors, but it is usually there. In a sense, though, it doesn't matter how much professors act out their unfavorable believes toward evangelicals, for just having them constitutes prejudice. These attitudes based on race are called racism, based on ism, against Jews antisemitism... all bad things.

3) Students' response. There's an old quip that "it's not paranoia if people are really out to get you," and some of that is going on here. I have long noted the discomfort many evangelical students feel in expressing their worldview in the classroom. Want to commit an instant faux pas in the classroom? Say the word "Jesus" in any context other than swearing. The unfavorable attitudes toward evangelicals held by a majority of professors suggests that this stifling of expression is both inevitable perhaps well advised, given professors' power in the classroom.

And it is here that I start feeling uneasy. I feel uneasy, first off, because Dr. Wright is approaching this issue as though an overwhelming majority of faculty members are virulent haters of evangelical Christians. As it happens, this is untrue- barely over half of faculty report negative feeling which means that 47% are neutral or positive. This is not to say that such a large level of coolness isn't problematic, potentially, but it's hardly a crushing majority. It's also a little unclear exactly how "cool" faculty are towards evangelicals as the study doesn't report means. There's a big difference between a mean score of 15 and a mean score of 45- both are "cool/hostile" but one is a lot more "cool/hostile" than the other. Now, obviously Dr. Wright is correct that intolerance of evangelicals does constitute something of a double standard in an institution that seeks to be accepting of all. That said, there's something unique about evangelicals relative to other groups that may help account for it. We'll return to that in a moment.

Dr. Wright also brings up the posibility of discrimination or prejudice against evangelical Christians and concludes that it almost certainly occurs given the link between attitudes and behaviors. I have mixed feelings about this point- on the one hand, I think attitudes and behaviors are connected but, on the other hand, it assumes that we lack professionalism. Readers of this blog know that I am a staunch atheist who would likely rate evangelicals quite low on the attitude thermometer. Yet what you don't know is that one of my favorite past students was an evangelical Christian. When discussing the course material with her I often found myself using biblical metaphors and analogies to help her understand and, in the process, likely convinced her that I, too, was evangelical. She was not my only evangelical student either, I've had many, and I have always worked hard to scrupulously avoid treating them any differently from other students. Does a negative attitude necessarily translate into negative treatment? No, but it does put a heavy burden on us to be professional. I also, to be frank, take issue with Dr. Wright's claim that, " doesn't matter how much professors act out their unfavorable believes toward evangelicals, for just having them constitutes prejudice..." All jokes about "thought crime" aside, do we really want to take the position that your opinions are the problem rather than your actions?

Turning to Dr. Wright's observation that evangelical students may feel hesitant to bring up their religious views in class, we discover some particularly informative points. Specifically, Wright comments: "Want to commit an instant faux pas in the classroom? Say the word "Jesus" in any context other than swearing." But is this true? Is it impossible to bring up Jesus in a religion class? A philosophy class? An ethics class? Of course not- although it may not be on topic (i.e. when discussing Nietzche's thoughts on ethics, Jesus' views are beside the point). In these courses the views of a variety of religious figures are relevant and often discussed. Then again, is it appropriate to bring up Jesus, or Mohammed, or Buddha, or any other deity or prophet in Physics 101? How about a genetcs course, or non-Euclidian geometry, or even neurology? Not so much. In these cases, Jesus' views are quite beside the point as we aren't discussing moral philosophy, religion, or history, but instead are discussing highly technical scientific issues. In point of fact, no religious figures are really appropriate topics of conversation in a great many classes unless, for example, they did post-graduate work in particle physics.

And, as it happens, the pressure that evangelical students feel to not discuss Jesus in these classes brings us back to cultural resistance and the point I alluded to above. The defining characteristic of evangelical Christianity is that it is evangelical- its adherents are strongly pressured to "spread the word" as it were. As such, they make themselves potentially disruptive to a classroom in a way that non-evangelical Christians do not. Saying that academics have negative feelings towards evangelical Christians* is, in this context, not dissimilar to saying that we have negative feelings towards students with behavioral issues.** Academics may not dislike evangelicals, per se, but simply find their behavior disruptive to our work.

Then consider the evangelical community, which includes figures like David Horowitz who routinely villifies faculty for all manner of real and imagined offenses. Consider my favorite cousin, an evangelical Christian, who reads novels that tell how university professors are the witless tools of dark satanic forces.*** Consider that many evangelicals distribute propaganda mocking us and our theories as part of a well-planned and hideously expensive campaign to discredit modern science. Is it any surprise that faculty have some negative feeling towards evangelical Christians? I'm honestly surprised that only 53% of faculty view evangelical Christians negatively. Far from being a sign of prejudice, that the number is so low suggests that tolerance is alive and well in the academy.

I am not saying that it's good that evangelicals are viewed negatively, but let's keep a sense of perspective here. Faculty feel under attack from evangelicals and have to suppress their speech in class about Jesus for good and justifiable reasons. The purpose of the classroom is to teach course material, not to indoctrinate, and that goes as much for the students as for the instructor.

Maybe faculty do feel the need to engage in some cultural resistance, but it doesn't look like they're resisting any harder than they absolutely have to.

* And I once more feel compelled to point out that academics are still pretty accepting.

** Really and truly, how long do you think you're going to be able to maintain a productive classroom atmosphere with a diverse group of students if classmembers are free- at their discretion- to preach to other students?

*** Totally serious here, people.

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Blogger Brad Wright said...

Thank you for the thoughtful critique. As you know, in academia it’s a real compliment when someone takes your ideas seriously—even if they disagree with them.

Some thoughts on your critique:
- It’s not clear that my post assumes an “overwhelming majority” of faculty hating Christians. I would say that 1 in 2 having negative feelings is a lot. Still, it’s helpful to point out, as you did, that there is variation in negativity, presumably from a little to a lot.

- It sounds like you’ve done a good job of teaching people who disagree with you and you work hard to treat them similarly. I agree with you on this point… one of my favorite compliments teaching was a student asking me which theories I liked because he couldn’t tell by how I presented them. This is hard to do, and I would like to think that all professors do that, but I don’t know that I can.

- Here’s where I was coming from with the prejudice comment (and I can see how it can be seen as a thought-police kind of thing). In academia, we constantly tell students (and are told ourselves) that negative attitudes toward outgroups is problematic. Just the attitudes alone we call racism and sexism. Would it work to say that though I have negative attitudes toward “x” minority group, I treat them well? Probably not. I was simply extending the logic to evangelicals.

- As for evangelical students talking in class, I too find overt evangelism in the classroom tiresome—but not just of Christians. It’s my experience that students of various other political and social perspectives “evangelize” in class far more often than Christians. What I was getting at is not preaching the gospel, but rather something as simple as a student identifying themselves as a Christian from the context of their remarks. Believe it or not, a lot of Christian students feel pressure not to do so.

- Sure there are some evangelical nutjobs, as there are in any social group, and sometimes I am rather embarrassed by what they say and do, but, in a sense, so what? It’s probably not the best idea to judge a group by its most extreme cases, and I could readily point out many, many, many Christians doing really good things in the world.

- If university professors are "witless tools of dark satanic forces," but I’m a Christian, does that make me just witless?

- Your point about cultural resistance points to an important distinction. In the classroom, professors have the power, and expressing negative preconceptions to any group (race/creed/color/gender) is problematic. This is different than dealing with outside agencies/ actors, such at the government, church, etc… for whom expressing negativity toward them is a form of resistance. This is why I focused my discussion on faculty-student interactions rather than society in general.
I’m not a big fan of the idea of Christianity as a culture war… but that’s a discussion for a different day.



Friday, June 08, 2007 6:00:00 PM  
Blogger Doing Better Than I Deserve said...

I think that the best use of the statistics that you and Wright quoted is comparative.

17 times as many professors expressed dislike of evangelicals as expressed dislike of jews.

14 times as many expressed dislike of evangelicals as buddists.

More than twice as many expressed dislike of evangelicals as expressed dislike of muslims.

Given the fact that the professor has most of the power in the classroom, this is significant.

Finally, do you think it is significant that you must be professional with evangelicals, whereas (presumably) there are students of other ethical / religious persuasions with whom you can be your natural self? (I do think it is significant.)

Monday, June 11, 2007 7:04:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Hey Brad,

I'll try to respond to your points with numbers so we can keep things straight:

(1) You have a point. I did feel like you were overstating the problem a bit but that was probably just my first impression. 1 in 2 is a decent number but I think the mean level of dislike is a very important question. I mean, I don't happen to care much for drug users but that doesn't mean I want to see them exterminated.

(2) Thanks for the compliment but, really, teaching isn't something that I think we ever get good at. I think it's something we work to be good at and it's the work that makes the difference. That said, we're all humans and we have our foibles. As long as we're trying to the best of our ability, and not failing too much, then we're doing okay.

(3) I see what you mean about the prejudice point, I just disagree with it and with the received wisdom. I don't have a problem with people disliking me- frankly I'm not a very likable sort a lot of the time- I just don't want to be treated poorly in my profession because of a personal conflict. Realistically I don't think it's possible for everyone to like everyone else, so the question isn't "how do I like everyone" but "how do I treat everyone fairly, regardless of how I feel about them?" Given all that, I think it's less important to criticize how someone feels than how they behave.

(4) I've had others besides evangelicals attempt to use my class as a forum for converting others and it always annoys me. Speaking personally, I think identifying yourself is okay (e.g. wearing clothing that identifies your religion, or brining it up in discussion if relevant to the course) but grandstanding is not. If evangelical students feel afraid to identify themselves... I'm actually sorry to hear that. As an atheist I know fully how unpleasant it is to feel like you have to hide who and what you are. So long as they don't interfere with teaching my class, I'm happy to have open evangelicals.

(5) You're absoluely right, every group has its nutjobs. The problem is that there are some very large, very powerful evangelical organizations that have an enormous amount of political influence. I think it's disingenuous to simply write them off as nutjobs. You're also correct that there are a lot of Christians doing good things in the world, there are also a lot of Christians doing bad things in the world, but either point is irrelevant. We're not talking about Christians in general, we're talking about evangelical Christians in particular.

(6) Hmmmm.... good question. I'll try asking my cousin. Based on what I read in the book, I'd guess it would make you a lone crusader for good and/or future martyr. Good luck with that!

(7) I agree with your point about the power differential in the classroom. It's why I labor to avoid pressing my views on anyone when I teach. The problem is, either I have to let everyone speak their minds about religion, etc, or I have to prevent everyone. If I let some, but not others, I am tacitly approving of some views. So, if for no other reason than because it makes it easier to convey course material, I choose to suppress it all. Not my preferred option because I love free speech, but options are sometimes limited...

Thanks for your thoughts!

Hey Scott:

Really, I like to think that I'm professional with all of my students. Otherwise, the evangelical students are getting much better performance from me than anyone else.

Monday, June 11, 2007 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Brad Wright said...


This has been a helpful exchange. I appreciate the chance to get feedback on these issues from someone who shares a very different worldview, and I hope that we can have more exchanges in the future.

If nothing else, I dig the possibility of being a "lone crusader for good" though I'm much less sure about the "future martyr" part.

Monday, June 11, 2007 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Drek said...

If nothing else, I dig the possibility of being a "lone crusader for good" though I'm much less sure about the "future martyr" part.

I kinda thought you might say that. Don't blame you one bit!

Monday, June 11, 2007 12:26:00 PM  

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