Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Inquisition School

If respect requires refraining from attacking people’s identity, then the only respectful discussion of religion is one in which everyone affirms everyone else’s beliefs, describes those beliefs without passing judgment, or simply remains silent.
Alan Levinovitz, assistant professor of religion at James Madison University. "How Trigger Warnings Silence Religious Students"
What crossed my mind when I read this is "What place does invalidating or passing judgment on other people's religion and or beliefs have in an academic environment?" I don't think that I was a particularly precocious child when I was in school, but even before taking four years of theology classes in high school, I understood that for any belief system confident in it's own exclusive salvific truth, anyone who was not a follower was doomed to whatever torments that a lack of salvation entailed. Accordingly, I didn't need anyone to tell me that as far as they, and whatever clergy they followed, were concerned, I was going to Hell. By the same token, I was well aware of the idea, espoused off and on by many different religions (and divisions thereof) throughout the centuries, that other religions were at best incorrect and at worst deliberate fabrications by some ineffable evil, serving no other purpose than to lead the gullible away from the one true path.

For me, the attitude of avoiding certain types of contention speech, which Professor Levinovitz describes as "a disaster in the religious-studies classroom," is little more than learning the difference between discussing religion as an academic topic and discussing religion as a means of partisan proselytization. When I was in college I could perfectly understand that many religions had an idea of divine punishment meted out to those who transgress certain rules (after all, I'd already had four years of theology by that point). I could even understand the social and community cohesion aspects of that particular article of faith. But I was also perfectly capable of comprehending that the person who felt the need to tell me specifically that I was a sinner saw me as a target for conversion, a buttress for their own feelings of moral righteousness, or some combination thereof. If clergy can explain their religion to you, and contextualize it in a world of other religions without the need to pass judgement on people who believe differently, it seems disingenuous to presume that college-aged young adults can only discuss their faith through calling each other out as sinners or fools.

I can understand that students who are sincerely convinced "that if others don’t believe what they do, they’ll go to hell." And I understand where Professor Levinovitz is coming from when he says that his irreligious students "probably agree with Thomas Jefferson that the final book of the New Testament is 'merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation, than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams'." (Although I do believe that he is a bit quick to ascribe that negative viewpoint as universal.) But he seems put out that "they’d never say so in class." But he never explains what benefit that a Baptist student telling a Jew that they'll suffer eternal torment or an atheist calling out an Evangelical's belief in the Rapture as lunacy brings to an academic discourse around religion. In other words, while he disagrees with the idea that "respect requires refraining from attacking people’s identity," he never sees fit to justify his apparent understanding that the two can productively coexist. He simply takes it as an article of faith that being exposed to what seems to be little more than the same garden-variety sectarian bickering one can find anywhere is an important part of religious-studies education. It's a faith that strikes me as misplaced, at best.

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