In my last blog post I was critical of Rebecca Watson for what I believed to be hypocrisy in her willingness to blasepheme the most holy of Christian symbols, the Holy Spirit, while at the same time condemning a site where visitors can burn a virtual Quran.
One reader of my post took exception with my conclusion, arguing that Watson had simply expressed disbelief. I would like to publicly thank Scott Forschler for engaging me on this issue. Were is not for his contacting me 4–5 times over the past week via Facebook, this blog, and my personal email account, I probably would have nothing more to say on the matter. I must say I find Scott’s level of interest in this matter intruiging. That a PhD with a teaching position would have the time or interest to engage me, one who has merely studied political and theological ethics as a masters student, is surprising. That he was so aggressive (frankly, obnoxious) in his communication with me and resorted to calling me a liar (??) is fascinating. So, with that I would like to apologize to Scott for my delayed response. I am truly sorry that things such as work, family time, and similar activities, consumed much of my time over the past week and so, while it is certainly no excuse, this is really the first chance I’ve had a chance to sit down and offer a substantive reply.
My position on Watson is fairly simple. To openly and unashamedly blaspheme the Christian Holy Spirit (all to get a free DVD), while simultenously condemning the burning of virtual Quran’s as bigoted and racist is clearly hypocritical and logically inconsistent.
I told Scott that if Watson had publicly mocked Allah, the Quran, or Mohammed, I would retract my claim that Watson is a hypocrite. Well, Scott didn’t dissapoint. He found a video of Watson speaking on camera about the incredibly effective Muslim outreach program: “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day.”
You will notice that in the video Watson does not equate Mohammed to unicorns, Santa Clause, etc… as she did with the Christian Holy Spirit in her “Blaspheme Challenge. I am assuming that Watson, herself, participates in this Muslim outreach program each year. So, I retract my claim that Watson has not blasphemed Islam. She has, albeit cautiously (even alluding to the fact that by so doing she may be putting her life at risk but that she has the courage to sand up for her principles).
Yet, I am not sure that the video Scott found makes the situation more clear. If anything, I’m left more confused about Watson’s sense of propriety than I was before. So we’ve seen Watson blaspheme both Islam and Christianity. She did not, as Scott originally suggested, simply express disbelief. She deliberately chose to blaspheme some of the most sacred and holy concepts in each religion.
What leaves me confused, then, is the fact that Watson condemns virtual Quran burning as bigoted and racist but supports offending Muslims by drawing images of Mohammed. Interestingly, both “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” and the website on which to burn virtual Qurans have remarkably similar stated goals. Each seeks to promote the free expression of ideas. So what is Watson’s objection to Quran burning? Again quoting Watson:
If you have at least part of a working human brain at your disposal and you’ve not been living in a cave the past several decades, you already know how stupid and counterproductive this is. You already know that burning books is the legendary method by which freedom of expression is impinged, and you also already know that the most famous case of Quran-burning was when fundamentalist Christian bigot Terry Jones first threatened to do so in 2010 and then actually did so the following year. Angry Islamists responded in both cases, by murdering a total of 50 people and injuring hundreds more. Apparently, at least one atheist then thought, “I need to get in on that!”
So Quran burning is bad. But drawing Mohammed is good. What is the distinction to Watson? Note how Watson makes reference to how “burning books is the legendary method by which freedom of expression is impinged.” Obviously, and rightfully, Watson opposes book burning as all rational people should. But it seems that Watson’s outrage at burning Qurans — even while explicitly referencing how such activities have lead to real-world violence, just like drawing Mohammed has done — is borne of her own sensibilities. Does Watson oppose burning Quran’s because burning books (generally) is wrong or, as she states in her post, because it is a racist and bigoted thing to do? Given Watson’s own words I don’t believe it is possible to outline Watson’s position as her views seem to drift pretty freely.
So at best, Watson is grossly inconistent. On one hand, she approves of blaspheme in an effort to protect free expression — even in the fact of violent reprecussions. On the other hand, Watson opposes burning Qurans because such actions induce violence. Does this make Watson a hypocrite? I don’t know because I can’t parse Watson’s position given her varying, and contradictory, statements and actions. I would hate to think that Watson believes Quran burning is wrong simply because it offends her own sensibilities about book burning; an odd position indeed to claim racism and bigotry against others when your own sensibilities have been tweaked (blaspheme??).
So again, a big thank you Scott Forshler. Without his consistent, aggressive, and obnoxious communication with me over the past 7 days, this blog post would not have been possible. I have noticed that one of Scott’s areas of expertise is the ethics of belief — an area I too find very interesting. As time allows, I hope to watch a few of Scott’s talks on Youtube to better understand his positions.
When considering where to pursue graduate-level education in religion a significant factor was how “friendly” the program was to religious believers. Some of the programs I looked at were, by reputation and by their own admission, biased against belief; against faith. I eventually chose Yale Divinity School because of its academic reputation but also because of the vibrancy its community of believers.
Every morning at 10am worship services were held in Marquand Chapel where students from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds gathered to sing hymns, listen to sermons (by faculty, MDiv students, or invited guests), and most importantly, hold fellowship together.
In my various classes (which mostly consisted of seminars) I studied the basics of Biblical interpretation utilizing “scientific” or academic methods or theories such as the Documentary Hypothesis. Study of the New Testament included analyzing the theoretical Q source and identifying the biases inherent in each of the Gospel narratives. Yet, through all of this, part of each discussion was the importance of the text in religious practice and faith. Discussions of belief were not forced or obligatory additions to an otherwise strictly academic discussion. Rather, elements of faith, religious practice, and belief were interwoven and sprung organically from student and professor interaction.
Lest I paint a misleading picture, allow me to say that Yale Divinity School is not the Fuller Theological Seminary; a school much more conservative in its theology and Biblical approach than YDS. Fuller appeals to a more conservative (theologically) students or individuals seeking ordination. This is not to say, of course, that YDS was in any way an unwelcoming place for religious conservatives. Mormons and Evangelicals were a vibrant part of the community and their perspectives were always welcomed as part of the larger dialogue.
The presence of believers in religious studies is essential because it helps prevent religious studies from becoming a form of anthropology. With the presence of believers, religious studies explores not only the “what and why” of religion, but also its meaning to individuals, communities, and nations.
Of course, believers who choose to pursue religious studies should not view the experience as one to meant to simply confirm what they already believe. Rather, the academic study of religion does not destroy faith, but challenges it; forcing students to examine why religious belief is (or is not) important. If a believer exits religious studies with the same understanding of their own faith as when the began, they have missed out on an important aspect of the academic study of religion; building and enhancing faith.
I entered YDS a believer and left YDS a believer. Many of my core assumptions has been challenged and, as a result, refined. Some beliefs were dropped altogether while others were adopted to take their place. In the end, I left YDS a more committed Christian than when I had entered.
Of course, given that the academic study of religion plays by the “rules” of academia meaning that answers or explanations such as “God said/did it” simply don’t hold up. I recall that my first paper at Yale dealt with the question of how moral questions should be discussed in the public square by religious believers and non-belivers alike. I struggled with the paper for weeks trying, in one way or another, to find a rational basis for “legislating morality.” I eventually found my answer — albeit not the one I originally expected — in the writings of Hebrew Bible pertaining to covenant formation.
I have heard some express concern that religious studies should be avoided by true religious believers because it will challenge and undermine their faith. While I certainly agree that faith will be challenged, I believe that religious studies can serve to strengthen faith and religious conviction by forcing believers to develop a defense which outlines the reasons for their religious faith (1 Peter 3).
For believers to withdraw from religious studies would also rob this academic exercise of vibrancy and relevance. Believers keep the study of religion firmly grounded in practical issues of pastoral care and practical theology.
The candidacies of both Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman have generated a lot of interest in Mormonism, its history, and its people. Just as with any religion or social group, Mormonism has its strengths and weaknesses as well as its historical high points and low points.
One of Mormonism’s historical low-points was its prohibition against ordaining men of African heritage to priesthood office between1852 and 1978. To this day, many consider Mormons to be racist due to this policy. Such claims attempt to simplify a complicated issue. Where did the priesthood ban — as it is commonly referred to — originate? Why did it persist for so long even after it became clear that Joseph Smith, Mormonism’s founder was an abolitionist and actually ordained men to high priesthood offices before his murder in 1844.
Lester Bush and Armand Mauss are the experts in this area of study and have, over the years, produced essays and articles to help both Mormons and non-Mormons understand the social, theological,and cultural dynamics at work during this period. Mauss covers this issue extremely well in his essay “The Fading of Pharoah’s Curse.”
In 2006, as part of my graduate studies, I decided to seek out my own answers to these questions and this paper is the result: