Confronting Religious Bigotry

September 15, 2004 | 13 comments
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This evening I was having dinner with a well-known professor of sociology from Stanford. Near the end of the dinner, he was discussing genetic research in Utah. He said the only problem is that the research is entirely focused on the men because the Mormons don’t care enough about women to keep their genealogy.

I cringed, and one of my colleagues quickly tried to intervene. “Is that true, Gordon?” she said in a tone that made it clear she was inviting correction. Turning to the professor, she said, “Gordon’s a Mormon, you know.” Of course, he didn’t know, and his embarrassment was already apparent, but I was not going to let him off easily. Perhaps now that I am past 40 I am getting a little curmudgeonly with religious bigots.

I asked, “How would women be excluded from the genealogical records? Do you mean to suggest that they aren’t recorded at all?”
Professor: “No. But I was told that it was impossible to trace a woman’s line.”
Gordon: “But if it is impossible to trace her line, then you couldn’t trace most men either, could you? After all, women have fathers. Do they just rip the whole line out, or are you suggesting that they just don’t connect fathers and daughters?”
Professor: “Ummm, I don’t really know. It’s just what I was told.”
Gordon: “Well, I would ask my wife, but I haven’t allowed her to speak to me for many years, so I’m not sure whether she would have anything to say.”

This version of the conversation probably appears more confrontational than it felt to most of the people at the table. It was clear that he was confused, and I was genuinely interested in figuring out whether there was some interesting fact about the genealogical records that lay at the root of his confusion. (Does anyone here know?) Nevertheless, when it became clear that he couldn’t produce the fact and had simply swallowed this oppression story whole, I made my smart-aleck comment and changed the subject.

Confronting religious bigotry is always a challenge. My inclination has been to expose the erroneous beliefs gently, often attempting to use humor rather than indignation. (You may not think that my last quip was funny, but most of the people at the table know my wife and realized immediately how ridiculous that portrayal was.) The problem with my approach is that it does not encourage discussion, which could serve an educational function. Of course, this professor was not in the mood to discuss his perceptions; he just wanted to move the conversation elsewhere. Which I allowed him to do after only a short time on the hot seat.

UPDATE: I edited the post to remove the professor’s identity. People say and think stupid things, and although I was quite angry at this fellow for his ignorant comments, I decided that his mistake should not be immortalized on this blog.

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13 Responses to Confronting Religious Bigotry

  1. Clark Goble on September 15, 2004 at 1:48 am

    What is strange is how religious bigotry is so acceptable in ways that other forms aren’t. For instance no one in polite company would expect someone to say that blacks can grow watermelons better. It would be a horrible thing. Yet somehow these odd (and typically nonsensical on the face of it) comments about religions are fine.

  2. Justin H. on September 15, 2004 at 3:10 am

    Clark, I wonder if it’s because religious affiliation tends to be viewed as a choice rather than some inherent attribute. Having suggested that, however, I don’t buy that the distinction is consciously made. I don’t know what’s at the root of it (and suspect that there are a whole range of reasons), but you’re right–it’s certainly tolerated more than racial bigotry is, and as often as not exhibited by people who claim to be champions of diversity and tolerance.

  3. Clark Goble on September 15, 2004 at 3:28 am

    It seems to me though that what is pernicious about bigotry isn’t that you are judging someone for something they have no choice in but that typically you are rendering an incorrect and unfair judgment.

  4. Nathan Tolman on September 15, 2004 at 6:26 am

    Perhaps it is just me, but when someone is spouting bigotry, I let them go on to see how far it goes. I have been surprised many times what people will say when they think everyone around them agrees with them. The down side is sometimes I have no time to say anything about it.

  5. danithew on September 15, 2004 at 8:23 am

    I like how you handled this Gordon. Nice job. I’m sure he’ll be smarting over his bigotry and stupidity for some time and maybe he’ll think twice about passing that sort of nonsense around in the future. Who makes up this stuff?

  6. Gilgamesh on September 15, 2004 at 12:49 pm

    “Clark, I wonder if it’s because religious affiliation tends to be viewed as a choice rather than some inherent attribute”

    I think when it comes to religious bigotry, the most egregious cases are when the religious belief is not viewed as a choice. Most people don’t harp on Methodists or Lutherans. The attack us as a culture because the perception is we don’t have a choice. we are either indoctrinated from birth or brainwashed or too stupid to know any better. It is always gratifying when those of “higher knowledge” come to realize that Mormons are none of the above, but are quite intelligent, free thinking and likable.

  7. Mark B on September 15, 2004 at 1:18 pm

    I was genuinely interested in figuring out whether there was some interesting fact about the genealogical records that lay at the root of his confusion. (Does anyone here know?)

    Maybe someone he knew had looked at familysearch.org, and discovered that the gender neutrality of the first generation of the search form degenerates into a patriarchal, man on top listing of Father above Mother in the second column. To quote Kristine, “Horrors!”

  8. Julie in Austin on September 15, 2004 at 1:43 pm

    Mormon or not, women are harder to trace because their names change. You find a census record for Jane Doe with four kids, fine. But what was her name before she married? Without that, it is hard to figure out who her parents were. Mormon has nothing to do with it. I think your friend was given some faulty causality for why there is less info on women.

  9. Mark B on September 15, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    Mormon or not, male or female, scandinavians are harder to trace than others, because their surnames change. So, Kristen Jensen is the father of Eric Kristensen and Katarina Kristensdatter and on and on. Of course, Katarina’s children are not Katarinassen or -datter, but the “Husband’snamesen.”

    Whatever the case, I don’t think it was the Church that set up this whole naming scheme.

    The only real solution would be to start adding names, so that every child would bear the surnames of all his or her ancestors. You could abbreviate all but the first few so the names could fit on the page, but the entire genealogy would be there in one name.

  10. sid on September 15, 2004 at 2:26 pm

    Interesting, Gordon. I have experienced similarly bigoted comments being made by people I know at the Univ of Michigan, who otherwise are left-leaning, politically correct to the extreme. Now, becasue I am Indian, andd am not the tsereotypical Mormon from Utah, such U-M folks assume that I am obviously not LDS, and they go on anad on making the most outrageously bigoted statements. It sure feels nice to see their flustered faces, when I politely inform them that I am a Mormon, despite their assumptions!!!

  11. gunner on September 16, 2004 at 12:28 am

    Living here in Nashville in what can best be called the belt buckle of the Bible belt I have heard some things that are foul. But with religon to back their bias it is hard to say “what you were taught about us in your church is not correct” without them hearing “your church is not correct”. They instantly become defensive and angry. I find it is better to try to understand where they got the information first before reacting to it. . Religion is worn openly down here, and sometimes it isn’t pretty.

    But I still like the one my wife was asked. “Are you’all the ones that worship cickens?”

  12. Hans Hansen on September 17, 2004 at 11:54 am

    Mark B: Ja, ja. Ve Scandihoovians sometimes have trubble tracing our genealogy, but the patronymic names are only one aspect. Some of my ancestors and cousins took the name of the farm that they lived on (i.e., Haugestad or Varberg) instead of the “-sen” surname, so if they moved from one farm to the next, that name changes also. In the older Norwegian records the woman keeps her surname even if she is married, so my great-grandmother Anne Helene Gulbrandsdatter keeps her maiden name, even on the christening records of her children.

    Jim F: Hi Jim. This is Hans who is married to Rosalyn, your wife’s old college roommate.

  13. Gerald Smith on September 22, 2004 at 12:56 pm

    The interesting thing about genetic research and genealogy, is there are two ways to do it: either you trace the woman’s line through the mitochondria, or a more difficult procedure to trace the man’s line.
    I believe the genealogy/genetic research being done at BYU is primarily via the mitochondria, so it really is an issue of women/mother’s lines.