Saturday, March 13, 2010

'Race' and God people

Not only in Canada institutions of higher learning have long been sensitive to concerns that students, staff or faculty might be subjected to unfair discrimination by virtue of their 'race', sex, sexual orientation and any number of other features. These concerns are well justified. You don't want anyone discriminated against just because they are of a particular skin color, or because they're female, or gay. The only thing that should matter, surely, is whether someone is best qualified for a job.

Of course, as we all know, common sense as this view undoubtedly is, the reality is quite different in many parts of the world. To my biased mind, it's not entirely coincidental that violations of this common sense rule are most frequently committed in developing countries. Also not coincidentally, to my biased mind, these violations seem to occur most likely in countries where religious ideologies are more rather than less influential. No wonder then that Muslims and Christians happily engage in genocidal acts against each other in Nigeria, gay folks are routinely subjected to mob 'justice' in Jamaica, women reportedly lose their lives during pregnancy in Nicaragua because Catholicism reigns supreme in that neck of the woods, and the list goes on and on and on.

Anyhow, I digress, so there's this Ryerson University in Toronto. It duly commissioned its own racism report. True to international form the writers of this report embarrassingly conflate racism (ie someone goes after you because of the color of your skin and other arbitrary ethnicity related features that are beyond your control) and discrimination because of something you choose (in this case your religious ideology). To be clear: I am not suggesting here that it is acceptable to discriminate unfairly against someone because she or he is Muslim, Christian, Jewish or subscribes to any number of other monotheistic ideologies. Quite rightly so, in a free society people are entitled to make those sorts of choices. The nice thing though, is that in a free society (unlike those men's outfits like the Vatican or Iran) people like myself are also entitled to make fun out of folks buying into such religious claptrap. Many religious people and their leaders don't like this bit at all, hence their attempts to get the same types of anti-discrimination protections that people are entitled to because of who they are as opposed to what kind of religious ideology they choose to believe.

It is deeply offensive to conflate in a report on racism racism with discrimination against people who make the choice to believe such stuff, and who then go out of their way to let the world know that they do (eg by putting black cloth over their heads, or wearing any number of religious knickknack around their necks etc). If you belong to an ethnic minority and you have been subjected to racism you will be permanently scarred to some extent or other. You will continuously wonder when the next shoe's gonna drop. Well, compare that to people who choose to wear religious paraphernalia in order to identify themselves as adherents to an ideology they have chosen. Surely this doesn't exactly fall into the same ballpark. Again, my issue is not at all that unfair discrimination against people because of the ideologies they subscribe to is fair game. Quite to the contrary.

Anyhow, back to the racism report at that Ryerson place. Here are some of the highlights that the experts who drafted the document included. Evidence of racism... a student quote:

“I am Muslim, and once I was fasting and there was an exam and I had to do my prayers and I felt like the Professor was not very accommodating, that he/she seemed to make it look like this was something that was my problem and I should just pray after the exam is done and I didn’t feel like that was fair.”

Here then is the difference between racism (eg a professor saying 'you can't attend my seminar because your skin colour is a tad bit too dark'), and the accommodation this student is clamouring for. The student chose to adopt an ideology as her belief system that requires her to stop eating at a certain point in the calendar, and to talk at a certain time to a higher entity that no one has ever demonstrated actually exists. It is clear to me at least that this indeed is the student's problem and not the professor's. Nobody forced her to make the choices she made. The ideology that she chose is her own responsibility, and so is her private matter. It's a bit like me choosing a membership in a political party, the boy scouts, or wherever. In case I wish to attend a party meeting, or go and stuff party political materials into letter boxes I have no reason to assume that my line manager would have to accommodate me. Equally though, as long as I do my job, she has no reason to discriminate against me either. The idea though, that my membership in a voluntary association should kind of trigger a special dispensation - as the Ryerson student seems to think is her God given right - is patently absurd.

Here's another bit from the Ryerson racism report,

Some Muslim students complained about the number of times jokes about sex are used by the instructor and students in class, and how, especially when they seem irrelevant to the subject matter at hand, this makes them extremely uncomfortable. One professor, for example, told a class one day that journalism is all about lots of sex and beer. Another professor who was teaching students how to modulate their voices for radio told the class to pretend they were having sex and to imagine the voice they heard when they experience “pleasure.” Other students joined in and began making “very weird noises,” leaving some students very uncomfortable. They suggested that cultural sensitivity is important in the classroom.

So, the idea here is that as professors we should not talk about sex anymore because it might affect our adult students' sensibilities. I take it, talk of evolution might just have the same effect, so perhaps we should consider dumping that, too. I mention things like abortion in my bioethics classes. Another culturally sensitive issue (and seemingly now a proper topic for a report on racism) obviously. Potentially my Christian students could be upset by what I have to say, or even by some of the language I might choose to describe a few hundred fetal cells (ie the Christian person equivalent). Wow, I can see already that I will find myself quoted in some other insane racism report.

To my surprise the Globe and Mail's Margaret Wente truly nailed the Ryerson report in an OpEd. I don't say this lightly. I have cancelled my subscription to the Globe and Mail because too many of its editorial writers (Wente being one of em) are so utterly below grade. Anyhow, to give credit where credit is due, she wrote a brilliant OpEd on this occasion. Here's bits and pieces from her piece:

“I pulled my hair when I saw the coverage,” says Kamal Al-Solaylee, an assistant professor at Ryerson's School of Journalism (and a former Globe theatre critic). “I've never worked in a more accommodating environment in my life.”

Mr. Al-Solaylee is a brown-skinned Muslim who is openly gay. He thinks the entire exercise is a frivolous diversion. “There are things that I need from the university, but this isn't one of them,” he says. “I need computers that don't crash all the time. I want students who don't have to hold bake sales to raise money for their graduate projects. There should be money for these things, not equity officers.”

Sensitivity to perceived discrimination is so acute these days that it can lead to perverse results. One instructor at the University of Toronto was told not to criticize foreign-born students for their poor language skills, even if they were unintelligible. Some aboriginal students say they shouldn't be evaluated by the same standards as everyone else, because they have different ways of knowing. Yet, as Mr. Al-Solaylee sensibly observes, his students will be working in an English-speaking, Eurocentric world. So they might as well get used to it.

The most bizarre revelation can be found in the report's fine print. Among the students, racism and discrimination scarcely register at all. Only 315 students (out of 28,000) bothered to respond to a task force questionnaire. Half the respondents were white, and half non-white. On the question of whether Ryerson treats students fairly regardless of race, the vast majority of both groups – more than 90 per cent – believed it did. Fewer than 30 of the non-white students said they had ever experienced discrimination. That's a 10th of 1 per cent of the student body.

Naturally, the task force has an explanation for this: People are too scared to speak out! That's the great thing about systemic racism. You don't need any evidence. Every negative proves a positive, and the absence of evidence just proves how bad things really are."

Go Margaret go! My qualm about this whole sad saga is not that it's unreasonable to have a conversation about reasonable accommodation of God folks, but please do not permit anyone to confuse this with racism. It's beyond pale, and, frankly, unworthy of a university.


  1. Here, here! From the report:
    Islamophobia is a form of anti-Muslim racism that involves expressions and acts of hostility towards those of the Muslim faith and people from what is referred to as the Muslim world.
    This is stupid and offensive.
    (1) The term 'Islamophobia' is a rip-off of 'homophobia', which is truly offensive since Islam is the prime source of the most brutal oppression of gays and lesbians in the world today.
    (2) The term 'homophobia' itself is silly, since the problem is hatred, not fear.
    (3) As you and Margaret Wente so eloquently point out, religion is not race.

    'Islamophobia' is just a term to de-legitimise criticism of Islam by pandering to the desire to display "conspicuous virtue".

  2. I'm not an expert, but I believe that Islam does accomodate adherants who are unable to strictly follow the prayer rituals. For example, airline pilots do not have to stop flying the plane while they pray. Thus the complaint about exams conflicting with prayers is bogus and is just an attempt to claim special privleges to exault their religion over everyone else.

  3. "(2) The term 'homophobia' itself is silly, since the problem is hatred, not fear."

    Xenophobia is hatred, not fear, too, but nobody says the term "xenophobia" is silly. I don't know why Lorenzo says this, since he believes in homophobia, whatever he calls it. This is usually confined to homophobes who don't want to be named at all.

    I think there is a real prejudice which may usefully be called Islamophobia (calling people "towelheads" for example) and should be condemned, but this is different from legitimate criticism of many aspects of Islam, such as jihad (in the sense that the terrorists use), subjugation of women, circumcision, Ashoura (the ceremony of slashing children's heads) etc. etc.

  4. Good article.

    I do however have a small philosophical problem with the idea that one can "choose" to believe something. I could no sooner force myself to believe that 2+2=5 than change my ethnicity. I'm not challenging the thrust of the post as I still believe these religious beliefs should not be a reason for special treatment. Just an aside really.

  5. simonchase... You're using the word "believe" far too loosely.
    Of course you cannot force yourself to believe that 2+2=5. That conclusion was arrived at logically, following from mathematical axioms.
    Belief in Islam, or any religion, is a faith position. This is a fundamentally different type of belief.
    Confusion of this sort is what leads to people to claim that science is another form of religion , since both depend on some degree of "faith".

  6. The challenge is that religious beliefs are mostly inherited and are strongly aligned to ethnicity. So although it's superficially correct to distinguish ideology from race/ethnicity in the way that you do, in practice it's not possible.

    Racists and xenophobes who know that using racist language will get the door shut on them, instead turn to anti-muslim rhetoric to achieve the same ends.

    Of course there should be a right to criticise and ridicule religion, and to make references to sexual acts in a school class even (if that's the cultural norm).

    However, those of us who are atheists should also be aware that our arguments are often indistinguishable from those made by very unpleasant xenophobes. we should be alive to that - much more alive than we generally are.

  7. interesting comments. thanks to all and everyone. guess there's two main bones of contention then: 1) does it make much sense to distinguish in practice racism and Islamophobia, seeing that Islam maps on particular ethnic groups; 2) religious folks do not actually choose the ideology they adhere to, they grow up with it.

    well, ad 1) i won't accept that argument, if for no other reason than that islam is rightly called a world religion. you find it among any and all kinds of ethnic groups. ad 2) of course it's true that most folks grow up with some kind of religious belief or other. little follows from that with regard to the choice argument, however. we have plenty of people who dump their religion at some point or other (just think of the council of ex-muslims in britain, ex-scientologists in the usa etc). so you CAN choose to stick to your beliefs or to discard them if you wish. try that with the colour of your skin (pace michael jackson).

  8. Typo at very bottom of article.

    "... let permit anyone...".

    If you correct it, you probably want to delete this comment at the same time.

  9. lol, true Blain, thanks much, i will correct it and leave a record of the exchange anyway :). udo

  10. I agree with Anonymous’s very important distinction between facts/knowledge and (religious) beliefs. But I disagree with Udo's argument that people can always choose their beliefs. I like to rag on religion as much as the next academic, but to insist that faith is always a choice strikes me as simplistic.

    I think we need to keep in mind that entire lives are built around faith. Also, the fact that some people abandon their faith (as Udo noted) does not prove that all people can.

    For the thoroughly indoctrinated, abandoning a worldview can be practically impossible because it involves abandoning one's entire known life (for the insufficiently educated, abandoning faith is literally unthinkable, but I imagine everyone agrees with that). I think, for some, abandoning one’s faith is as much an option as suicide. The devote are, in a sense, free to abandon their faith just as we are, in a sense, free to kill ourselves. But, in a more practical sense, we really aren’t. Thoughts?

  11. Re: Cornell

    Your example of suicide is a good one. It clearly shows that though the choice seems pre-determined (seems intuitive that nobody would choose it), the fact that some people do it shows that is a choice... a matter of free will as much as anything is. Contrast that with race, which can not be chosen.

    I'm not trying to over-simplify. I'm familiar with the particulars of free-will vs. determinism. Whether or not a choice is ultimately based on genetics or environment or quark fluctuations, it is a pragmatic necessity for civil cohesion (a necessity manifested very strongly into our emotion responses by evolution) that we behave as if people are responsible for all choices-- and religion is clearly a choice. Yes, that sounds like an approach to post-modernist relativism, but I must omit a proper defense because it would be impossible to make one without hijacking the topic of this page.

  12. @Cornell - I agree with Blaine's take on this one.

    But, for the sake of the argument. Assume that some/many religious people do not make a conscious choice to remain religious, and that they grew up religious due to parental (and private religious school) indoctrination. Wouldn't you think that under such circumstances we'd have even less reason to be respectful to such unreflectively held beliefs?

    I have also difficulty with your interpretation of what it means to change one's mind on the fairy tale issue. Why would that be akin to throwing one's former life away? The former life had - like any other life - a lot of positive and negative experiences contained in it that the religious individual enjoyed or disliked (and anything in-between). These experiences are kind of 'done' in the same way that experiences are 'done' that an atheist would have had. Whatever happens from now onwards is new. Reinterpreting the world around oneself seems an exciting, positive thing, if anything. It doesn't mean that one's former life was a waste of time.

  13. Crap! Two responses. OK, I’ll take them in turn.


    I am aware that all individuals are capable of abandoning religion. That really wasn't my point. Neither was my point to foray into the metaphysics of choice (please, I just finished grad school, don’t make me go back there).

    My intention was to be a little more nuanced about the options that are practically available to individuals raised in a highly religious context. 'Practical' is the key word.

    The conception of freedom being thrown around here is too narrow for my liking. I say this because it denies the existence of very real restrictions to freedom, simply because such restrictions do not exist for everyone. We are all “free”, under this conception of freedom, to stab our grandmothers, eat out siblings, burn our pets, etc. And, indeed, some people do. However, I am suggesting this conception of freedom is inadequate because, in lived reality, most people really aren’t practically free to do such things.

    For some (very) religious people, abandoning faith can be as equally impossible as the horrible things I listed.


    First, we don’t need to assume for argument that some people don’t make a conscious choice to stay religious. This definitely occurs. Imagined a homeschooled teenager in Texas, who is never able to leave the compound, who only ever interacts with religious nuts, who spends her waking hours life tending to the farm. If she is denied foundational intellectual tools, she could very well be incapable of choosing to stay religious. Without education, there may be no choice regarding religion.

    Second, “wouldn't [I] think that under such circumstances we'd have even less reason to be respectful to such unreflectively held beliefs?” Yes, absolutely. I think religion is a disease.

    To the third point, I’ve been misinterpreted. I don’t think abandoning one’s faith (and with it one’s entire known life) is necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s probably a good thing. My point is that radical changes in one’s life are not always possible. Imagine if your children, you partner, your parents, friends and neighbours would all shun you if you left the faith. For some, such grave consequences would remove the choice of abandoning faith.

    Also, if you really did believe in the imminent rapture, and worked for many years to gain passage to heaven, imagine how hard it would be to come to deny that. And imagine if you really believed in the prospect of brimstone, or even if you were conflicted about it. Many minds cast away questions of faith (i.e. reason) simply because the possible consequences seem too dire.

    What I’m saying is that, I believe, abandoning faith sometimes involves too much perceived sacrifice to be within the realm of possibility. I’m not saying that leaving one’s faith is a bad thing. I’m saying some people just can’t.

  14. Re: Cornell

    ...However, I am suggesting this conception of freedom is inadequate because, in lived reality, most people really aren’t practically free to do such things.

    I suppose that you are probably right according your improved definition of freedom, but I can't tell since I have never encountered this thing before and I have seen nothing to indicate that your definition furthers the goal of describing reality. As people can and sometimes do stab their grandmothers (and the same for every example you have produced), this does qualify as "freedom" as generally understood with respect to the ability to choose, which is the domain of our discussion here.

    I charge that you are mis-applying the word practically. We are arguing whether somebody is free to choose something. That freedom is proven practically by single instances of choosing different alternatives. The probability distribution of choices made makes no difference, and the lob-sidedness of the probability distribution is the only point your examples have in common. If people do choose X in some cases and Y in some other cases (as they do in every example you have raised), then in fact they have practically exercised their freedom to choose.

  15. @Blaine

    I like your rhetorical strategy of claiming everything as your own, first the domain of the discussion, and then the meaning of ‘practicality’.

    But if the domain of the discussion is as you say, then I’m not sure why there’s a discussion. Yes, people are free to abandon their faith and to stab their grandmothers. That some people do proves they are free to do so. We all accept this. No one has denied this. I have already agreed to this in an earlier post.

    What you do not seem to understand is that I have not been engaging a philosophical discussion about what constitutes freedom. I am saying that faith can be deeply connected to all the major aspects of people’s lives and, for some people, this makes abandoning their faith effectively impossible. This is not some kind of arcane mystery, as you suggest at the beginning, but a pervasive feature of the human experience. Perhaps you have never encountered religious people.

    But if I were to engage a philosophical discussion, I’d say all your stuff about lob-sided probability distribution is just wrong. Here’s why. Some people actually believe in fire and brimstone. Let’s call them Brimmies. If questions about, say, the existence of God pop into a Brimmies minds, he quickly suppresses them from fear of burning for eternity. And so, for Brimmies, faith is not a choice but coerced. Single instances of others abandoning faith does not prove that religion is always a choice, because those who abandon their faith clearly do not fear fire and brimstone in the same way that Brimmies do.

    I'm not sure that I'll have the energy to re-re-re-respond.

  16. In terms of being free or not to leave a religion, it might help to think about it in terms of addiction. Drugs or alcohol don't quite compare, but perhaps something like an MMORPG?

    I'd think that playing something like WoW (World of Warcraft), which immerses you into its own world, with its own community, rules and rituals, might be something akin to religion; though the latter would most likely have a stronger effect. When attempting to leave either, the person might feel as though they are losing something quite tangible, important and valuable (though they may be mistaken) and this makes the process a tad harder.

    So yes, they might have the freedom to leave religion but the effort required may be beyond their capabilites.

  17. Udo, excuse the reposting; I posted this @Russell's place y'day, though in hindsight, it would have made more sense to do so here.

    I kind of agree with the general point, but not for quite the same reason as you. As some people have already pointed out, it's questionable to say that we can choose what to believe; I could no more choose to believe in the literal truth of the Bible than I could will my skin to change colour. And - as Cornell has poited out at length - for some kid kept deliberately insulated from other worldviews, this would be particularly harsh.

    For me, the principal difference between religion and race lies in its relevance to the sort of circumstances in which we might legitimately discriminate. Whereas skin colour tells us next to nothing of importance about someone, their religion - if they do more than pay it lip-service - will often determine their most important moral values, aspirations and aversions, likely attitudes towards many other people. Unlike skin colour, those aspects of a person's character are likely to be relevant in a whole assortment of circumstances, including social and professional.

    I'd also agree with Tom that the relationship between racism and religious discrimination is a little more complex in reality than you acknowledge here. Groups like the English Defence League are pretty cynically exploiting concerns about fundamentalist Islam to target certain ethnic groups, while anti-Catholicism in Scotland has often been a very close bed-fellow of anti-Irish racism. This isn't just used by racists and xenophobes as a quasi-legitimate excuse for Paki/paddy-bashing, but also by ultra-consrvative religious spokespersons (usually RC or Muslim) as a barrier agaist legitimate criticism.

    While we might be aware that religion and race are quite distinct phenomena, we should perhaps be aware of their cynical conflation by a motley array of intellectually disingenuous bad guys. Unless we want to be lumped in with them, we might want to be a bit more explicit in acknowledging this.

  18. My views on this issue are more progressive (cultural embedment and all that), but this is an issue that I have found myself struggling with. Especially with unproductive comments like this:

    Beliefs like this completely discourage me from engaging in any ethical debate. Thoughts?


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