Florida professor called religious students “bigots”

Prof. Pettigrew on why he was wrong


Michael Caven/Flickr

Religion is a sensitive topic for many, so discussion of it in the university classroom can be difficult. In my case, religion often comes up in literature classes and I do my best to not impose too much of my own views, lest the discussion turn too much to the religious questions per se and not enough on the literary questions. As I point out to my students, it doesn’t matter what you believe about God, but it does matter what Milton thought about God—at least when you’re reading Milton.

When your class material is religion itself though, things must become muddier. And I’ve heard many stories from colleagues over the years about awkward moments when religious students vigorously advanced their views against evolution or the Big Bang or could not be persuaded to entertain different point of view because “that’s just not what I believe.”

So I have some sympathy for Charles Negy, the angry University of Central Florida prof who recently lashed out at his stridently religious students. According to reports, a small number of Negy’s students argued that their religion, Christianity, was superior to all others, a position some other students, not surprisingly, took issue with. Later, Negy emailed all the students in the class denouncing those who made the pro-Christian claims for their “arrogance and bigotry.”

I have little doubt that the students were wrong, but I don’t think they were wrong for the reasons their prof did

The key point here—and one that is too often overlooked—is that religion is not the same kind of thing as race. One is born into a race and so there is no sense in which your race can be wrong. It is what it is. Moreover, all claims of overall differences in racial abilities has been thoroughly debunked (I recommend picking up a copy of Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man on this point).

Religion on the other hand, is a set of beliefs, and beliefs can be right or wrong. Further, in a wide variety of ways, religions contradict each other, so they can’t all be right. So of course a religious person would think their dogma was right while others were wrong. What would be the point of having a religion if you didn’t think it was right?

In a strange way then, the students in this class were doing what religious people ought logically to do if they really believe—try to convince others that their position is better than others. The reason it came off as stupid and mean-spirited is not that they were arrogant in their beliefs, but that the beliefs themselves are illogical and unsupported.

The fact that most religious beliefs—when considered objectively—are patently silly has led many (including scholars) to treat religion as off limits in the way that race is. Since everyone knows that no one is impregnated without sex, or that angels don’t really talk to people, or that folks are not reborn over and over again, we avoid the topic by deciding that decent people don’t dwell on such things.

In this way religion continues to survive, at least in mixed company, as an identity marker beyond debate.

But ideas should never be beyond debate. Not at university at least.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.


Florida professor called religious students “bigots”

  1. Excellent — but wait for the religious nutters to take issue. Here they come…

  2. Prof. Pettigrew —

    I don’t read the letter in the same way you do; I took Prof. Negy’s objections to be to students’ unwillingness to treat religious belief as a serious object of academic study, *because* they believed that their own religion was clearly correct. While he objected to, and called ‘bigoted,’ the claim (made, he made clear, *without* appeal to evidence or argument) that obviously Christianity was “the best” religion, he was more concerned, as I read his email, with students’ refusal to acknowledge that the serious study of culture *demands* a study of religion. It is, of course, obvious that in such a study religion must be treat *for the purposes of the study,* as a cultural artifact like any other, and it would seem that *this* is what the students were refusing to do (and in one case, vocally encouraging other students to refuse to do it). That strikes me as a real problem, and I think Negy’s diagnosis of the problem was, if not *perfectly* on target, at least pretty close!

    I would urge you as well to caution in your comparison to race. There is, after all, a myriad of so-called “racial realists” ready to argue that the evidence points the other way, and who view Gould’s _The Mismeasure of Man_ as nothing more than ideologically motivated misinformation. Now, I think we have good evidence that these people are wrong (and I think we have good evidence that they are, at least for the most part, racists), but some of them have real academic positions, (at least) one of them used to be the science writer for the NY Times(!), and they do make arguments and provide evidence. And when they do, we have to respond to them, with, we hope, better arguments and better evidence (so, as it turns out, just relying on Gould is no longer even remotely sufficient). So again, here, I take Negy’s point to be that you can’t just stand up in class (or elsewhere) and *say* obviously this race is smarter, or faster, etc. (or if you do, you’re a bigot). And if you *do* make an argument to that effect, you must expect that other people will have the opportunity to *respond* to your argument, with other evidence.

    None of that can happen if one refuses, as a matter of principle, to discuss something, because even discussing it might imply that you aren’t right. That’s what he was accusing the students (both the real ones in his original email, and the hypothetical ones in the ‘race’ example in his follow up) of doing, I think.

    There is, in other words, and important distinction between “thinking you are right,” and refusing to engage with a subject. Religious students will, *of course,* think they are right. (I’d note here as well that you can think you are right without being an intolerant asshole, and going on about it all the time, too.) But if they can’t put that aside in order to *study* their religion, or the relationship between religion and culture more generally, that’s a problem. And not because we are right to think that their religion is wrong, but because not being able to study a major arena of human life is going to be a problem for their future work!

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