A Response to Dr. Charles Negy
Dr. Charles Negy is a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, who became well-known in recent weeks for an email he sent out to his cross-culture psychology class, which went viral on the Internet. Several news sources have already written approving pieces on what seems to be a fine example of academic admonishment from a professor to his students. But is it?
In his email Dr. Negy chastises a few Christian students who, during his lecture on American culture and religious bigotry, demonstrated flawlessly and “precisely what religious bigotry is.” According to Dr. Negy, “bigots – racial bigot or religious bigots – never question their prejudices and bigotry. They are convinced their beliefs are correct.” He even thanks the Christian students, who claimed that Christianity is “the most valid religion,” for “demonstrating to the rest of the class what religious arrogance and bigotry looks like.” The good professor also makes it clear that Christianity, among other religious beliefs, is grounded in fantasy without any logic or evidence.
I found several things about Dr. Negy’s email troubling. I wish I could sit down with him and talk some of these out in person. (Who knows?) But for now I think it’s worth taking note of a few prefatory issues.
What came to my mind most immediately as I read Dr. Negy’s email was the ironic fact that in accusing his students of “bigotry,” Dr. Negy essentially convicted himself of the self-same crime without being aware of it. To summarize Dr. Negy’s position, the Christian students who spoke out in his class and sought to validate their personal views are “religious bigots” because they assume their Christianity to be true while attempting to invalidate the views of others (i.e. of Muslims, Buddhists, agnostics, etc).
But, that frankly doesn’t seem too different from what Dr. Negy was doing himself in his email. Dr. Negy was also invalidating Christianity on the basis of his own atheistic assumptions, namely, that the only way to know God is by means of human efforts (e.g. logic and evidence) and not by God’s grace (e.g. revelation and inspiration), or that God has not already provided sufficient empirical evidence of his existence in creation and history. (Romans 1:20)
Well, does this mean we are all “bigoted” one way or another depending on who’s pointing the finger? Not necessarily. As Dr. Negy wrote himself, “it typically is not the case that all views are equally valid.” So I don’t wish to accuse Dr. Negy of anything like relativism or subjectivism. What I am concerned about, however, is his misunderstanding of the terms “bigotry” and “intolerance.”
After all, we should really define what “bigotry” means before we use them. Both the Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries describe a “bigot” as someone who is “obstinately” convinced of one’s own beliefs, that is, stubbornly holding onto one’s convictions while ignorant of contrary evidence. In other words, “bigotry” is the refusal to examine the validity of one’s beliefs, or rejecting others’ beliefs without examining their validity. If we define the word this way, then it’s quite difficult to discern what exactly constituted as “religious bigotry” on the part of the Christian students. I may be splitting hairs here, but it seems to me that while the students asserted the validity of Christianity, they did not assert their unwillingness to change their minds or listen to any contrary evidence (as far as I can tell none was presented). The only one who refused to counter-argue the validity of an opposing view was Dr. Negy, who simply resorted to ad hominem attacks.
Theologian D.A. Carson notes that the modern understanding of a related term, “tolerance,” has led to similarly relativistic applications and has departed far from the most standard dictionary definitions. Today, “tolerance” is no longer considered as ‘the acceptance of the existence of different views,’ but rather it is ‘the acceptance of the validity of different views.’ In other words, being “tolerant” is not only recognizing others’ rights to hold their beliefs without suppressing them, but it is also agreeing with those views. Now, Dr. Negy may not have demanded his Christian students to accept the validity of other religious views, but he did demand that they accept the validity of his own atheistic assumptions by which he concluded that religion in general is invalid. (See The Intolerance of Tolerance for more.)
But is that what our university education is all about, to demand of us (albeit inadvertently) the blind acceptance of everyone else’s personal assumptions, and then label those who fail to meet that demand “intolerant”? A Christian professor would be ridiculed if he demanded his atheist students to use the Bible to validate their atheistic beliefs. So why is Dr. Negy’s demand of his Christian students to essentially validate their Christian beliefs according to his atheistic presuppositions considered upstanding pedagogy?
What really surfaced in Dr. Negy’s class that day (and in the email) were not just a few students’ intolerant religious views, although that may have been the case. But what’s more telling than that is what may happen to all our institutions and lecture halls if these mistaken ideals of uniformity without diversity continue to spread, all because we fail to grasp the virtues of true “tolerance” and “diversity.” That’s one tragic trend that needs reversing.
Dr. Negy concluded his email with the following reminder:
Universities, including UCF, have special policies in place to protect our (both professors’ and students’) freedom to express ourselves. Neither students nor professors have a right to censor speech that makes us uncomfortable. We’re adults. We’re at a university.
I agree. But, hindering students from bringing a diversity of views and assumptions into the classroom does not facilitate this “adult” dialogue. Our educators shouldn’t label their students as “bigots” for not sharing their personal assumptions, and neither should they turn the pursuit of truth into a pursuit of some formless uniformity. Teachers and students of all levels of education need to bring a mind that is both open and self-aware into the classroom.
And, perhaps, a portable dictionary might come in handy, too.
*Last edited 12/6/12.