The Enlightenment Credo is summed up by Joe Friday -- "Just the facts, Ma'am." There is this belief that we can, as humans, step out of our own shoes and look at the world with unbiased eyes. It was a belief that drove the Founders of the movement that became my denomination. It's a Baconian model of science that suggests that we can collect data, and that the data will reveal its meaning to us -- without interpretation. As with the reading of Scripture, the Constitution, or any other set of data, interpretation involves bringing certain presuppositions to the table.
As a Historian, I've tried to look at my subject as objectively as possible, and perhaps because I have little emotional investment in the people and movement I study (I'm not attracted to the Nonjuror vision of the church -- they're not my people!), I can look at things pretty objectively, or at least I think I can. History is often classified as part of the social sciences, as is sociology, and in this week's Sightings piece historian Martin Marty addresses questions of bias in a study by a Sociologist, whose presuppositions may be formed by his Christian faith, and who published findings that are seen as anti-gay. So, the question is -- are his presuppositions out of bounds? Read Marty and offer your thoughts.
Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion
The University of Chicago Divinity School
The University of Chicago Divinity School
Christian Bias? A Sociology Study on Gay Parents
-- Martin E. Marty
Sightings, at least in its Monday column releases, regularly classifies many topics dubbed “church and state” as being unsolvable. We have quoted Walter Berns who wrote that the Founding Fathers, who get so regularly invoked in contemporary debates, solved the problem of church and state by not solving the problem. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights go a long way in providing a framework, but any look at State and U.S. Supreme Court rulings in any session will reveal that the demands of factions—as James Madison called them—are too complex to be satisfactorily faced and settled.
This season the major unsolvable issue was the case of Prof Mark Regnerus of the University of Texas. He published findings in Social Science Research, a sober journal which ordinarily provides little grist for sensational media. Regnerus, however, picked the topic which agitates more people than most, and which deals with unfinished business in religious, legal, and cultural debates: homosexuality. Let’s quote from the Right, Karla Dial, summarizing the issue in Citizen magazine: his findings suggested that children raised by homosexual parents were more likely than those raised by heterosexuals to grow up with problems too extensive to be summarized here.
Bloggers and others attack Regnerus, his methodology, his sponsors—undisguisedly promoters of anti-homosexual criticism—and more. I’ll attach a couple of sources which reveal how divided the readers of articles are on the gay parents issue. Readers of a few lines will see at once how volatile the discussions are. Regnerus’ host institution, the University of Texas, convoked a panel which backed Regnerus. The internet is crowded with comments on both sides of the issue.
Sightings wants to pick up on what makes this an addressable but finally insoluble concern of such interests. Here’s the line-up: one group of commentators found radical fault because Regnerus is explicitly Christian in his commitments, and argued that one cannot “do” respectable academic social sciences if those commitments are to forms of Christianity which are critical of those with viewpoints favoring rights of gays. One group sees no carry-over of a bias shaped by Christianity of a particular sort. The University of Texas found nothing to censure in the Regnerus case. Scholars on the other side found plenty to censure, and the fight over these issues goes on and on.
While one set of critics argue that one cannot favor Regnerus’s article without pressing the conservative Christian faith he professes, the other says that expressing his kind of Christianity without having it distort everything, is biasing, and should be ruled out. While many debate the empirical research and findings, Sightings steps back and says that in social sciences there is no pure land beyond prejudice, pre-judging, where scholars are free of bias. They may be fair-minded, careful, judicious, often hard to pin down, but dig, dig, dig and you will find presuppositions behind the presuppositions, this time subtly leading to a tilt one way or another.
The Regnerus incident in its first phase is now history and many move on. But astute religionists on left and right who know that social (and political and other) professors of total balance also bring their own presuppositions, which will be biasing.. Scholars have all kinds of checks on their scholarship, but they can’t and don’t jump out of their communities, creeds, and commitments, recessive and vague though they seem.
Melissa Steffan, “Mark Regnerus Cleared Of Misconduct in Research Involving Gay Parents,” Gleanings, September 12, 2012.
Scott Rose, “Regnerus Anti-Gay Scandal: Open Letter To Texas Attorney General, The New Civil Rights Movement,” October 1, 2012.
Martin E. Marty's biography, publications, and contact information can be found at www.memarty.com.
This month, the Religion and Culture Web Forum presents a chapter from Naomi Davidson's recent book Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France (Cornell 2012). Davidson's monograph tackles the question of why the French state (and its citizens) interacted with Muslim immigrants throughout the 20th century exclusively through their Muslim identity. The answer to this question, she argues, lies in the embrace of a notion of "French Islam," which "saturated [immigrants] with an embodied religious identity that functioned as a racialized identity. The inscription of Islam on the very bodies of colonial (and later, postcolonial) immigrants emerged from the French belief that Islam was a rigid and totalizing system filled with corporeal rituals that needed to be performed in certain kinds of aesthetic spaces. Because this vision of Islam held that Muslims could only ever and always be Muslim, 'Muslim' was as essential and eternal a marker of difference as gender or skin color in France" (1-2). Davidson's chapter on 1970s Paris addresses why the "conflation of Muslim religious sites with racial, national, and cultural identities" continued even in an era when Muslim religious observance in France was widely regarded as "on the wane"; this state of affairs reveals, according to Davidson, "the deep-seatedness of the French belief in the fundamental inability of certain Muslim immigrants to be anything other than Muslim subjects" (171).
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.