When Students Cross a Line

A professor sent a mass e-mail to all of the students in his course when some of them argued that Christianity is a superior religion. Was he right to do so?

August 21, 2012

Charles Negy, a professor of psychology at the University of Central Florida, has taught his cross-cultural psychology class for 15 years. Uproars are not uncommon, especially when he talks about religion or tells his students that there is no evidence of a “heaven."

(Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct what Professor Negy says he tells his students about heaven.)

Even so, the arguments reached a new low in January.  In Negy’s telling, about 8 to 10 students, among 496 students in the class, started arguing that Christianity was superior to other religions. Negy asked the protesting students to demonstrate how this was so. At this, one of the students in the group asked the rest of the class not to take part in the discussion.

Negy said the class continued after he steered the discussion in another direction, but he was fuming. Soon after, he sent out a stinging e-mail message to all the students in his class. “Students in my class who openly proclaimed that Christianity is the most valid religion, as some of you did last class, portrayed precisely what religious bigotry is. Bigots — racial bigots or religious bigots — never question their prejudices and bigotry,” he wrote. “They are convinced their beliefs are correct. For the Christians in my class who argued the validity of Christianity last week, I suppose I should thank you for demonstrating to the rest of the class what religious arrogance and bigotry looks like.” In his e-mail, he emphasized the role of critical thinking.

This e-mail got new life when someone posted it on Reddit a few days ago and it then spread, renewing vigorous discussions about the professor’s right to insist on civilized, reasoned discourse vs. students' right to say whatever they believe.

Negy is standing by his e-mail, and said that he reacted the same way as he would have if a group of students stood up in class and said that their race was superior to other races. “Can you imagine that happening in a classroom? I cannot. But somehow it is O.K. to say that your religion is better than other religions,” he said. “We have not matured when it comes to religious bigotry.” According to Negy, in the days since his e-mail got an audience beyond his students, he has received congratulatory messages from other parts of the United States, Europe and Canada.

Jeffrey Cassisi, the chair of the department of psychology at UCF, said in an e-mail that he supported Negy’s perspective. “I view Dr. Negy’s discussion as protected by the fundamental principles of academic freedom,” he said. “I am encouraged by the worldwide positive response to his letter, because if critical thinking and debate were not permitted in our public universities, I believe the future of all human rights would be at risk.”

Tony G. Waldrop, provost and executive vice president, said in an e-mail that the university encouraged faculty members to have classroom discussions that help students think critically. “We also hope our students will arrive at their own opinions based on those thought-provoking discussions,” he said.

One comment on Reddit, which was somewhat critical of the e-mail,  asked the difference between bigotry and belief. "Where do you draw the line between bigotry and simply having a sense of pride or trust in your own beliefs?” asked the commenter. “Of course, the student asking others to not participate was very much so an example of bigotry. As for the rest of the professors points, on university freedom of education/discussion, I wholeheartedly agree. I'm just curious of the line drawn on bigotry, and how easy it is to cross it.”

Robert O’Neil, a former president at the University of Virginia who was the director of Difficult Dialogues, a Ford Foundation initiative for constructive dialogue about race and religion in higher education, among other issues, said that as a teacher, he always took care to avoid controversial or inflammatory statements when it came to religion. “Of course, the professor [Negy] has a right to promote a mature, thoughtful discussion,” O’Neil said. “And his class, from what it seems, included a component that included discussing religion.”

Pauline Turner Strong, an associate professor of anthropology and women’s and gender studies at the University of Texas at Austin who also took part in the Difficult Dialogues project, said that it is very important to have ground rules in place when it comes to discussing topics such as religious beliefs.

Strong said that Negy’s task might have been even more challenging because he was teaching a very large class instead of a small “seminar-sized” class where such discussions might be easier and more respectful. “Anyone who teaches cultural anthropology is used to this kind of issue, but I do think it is important to deal respectfully with those who hold their religious beliefs very strongly,” she said.

Just as discourses around race can have a poisonous rhetoric, so can discourses around religion, said Eboo Patel, founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core and a member of the White House Advisory Council on Faith-Based Neighborhood Partnerships. Patel said the debate over Negy’s email raises the larger question of how universities should deal with the question of religious diversity on campus. “Professors have to engage in a respectful way, the same as when dealing with racial or ethnic identity issues,” he said.

The current debate at UCF can be used as an opportunity, Patel said, to find out ways to set a respectful but engaging tone when it comes to discussing religion. “The highest hope we can have is that universities can be engines of positive change,” he said.

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