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Religion Scholars and National Governments: Should They Be Partners? — A Panel Discussion - Page 2 PDF-NOTE: Internet Explorer Users, right click the PDF Icon and choose [save target as] if you are experiencing problems with clicking. Print

Barker: I don’t think scholars have a duty to serve their government, but, generally speaking, I do believe we have a duty to cooperate, while remaining faithful to the ethics of scholarship (no selective fudging) — that is, we should make accurate information available on the assumption that it is preferable to inaccurate information. However, this does not mean we should cooperate in the way that Josef Mengele cooperated with the Nazis at Auschwitz-Birkenau, however scientifically accurate he was.

It can be useful to distinguish between values involved in the following stages of a project:

1) Choosing a problem for study. Here, the religious scholar can decide something (e.g., whether “cults” “brainwash” their “victims”) is worth investigating. This could be because s/he considers it important/interesting or in some way “value relevant,” or because the government is prepared to fund the research (the latter reason is not necessarily wrong, but leads to some obvious questions for deliberation).

2) The collection and analysis of the data. This process should be as objective and value free (as opposed to value relevant) as possible, regardless of who asked the question or is funding the research.

3) The use to which the findings are put. Of course, the scholar may have no control over what a government does (the use of napalm is an example). This might lead to scholars refusing to make their findings public or even to carry out particular research (such as that which could be used for “defense”). Alternatively, the scholars might knock on the door of governments to try to persuade them they should use objective, scholarly information rather than the misinformation available in sections of the media and elsewhere.

This is what I did in the 1980s when I persuaded the British government to support INFORM (www.inform.ac) as a provider of reliable, scholarly information about minority religions. In this way, I believe, we have avoided some unnecessary suffering at both the individual level (e.g., deprogrammings by untrained persons) and at the social level (such as another incident like what occurred at Waco, TX). At the same time, scholarly investigations have enabled INFORM to alert the appropriate authorities when they learned of allegations of serious crimes, such as suspicious deaths or child abuse.

It is relatively easy to work with a democratic government, such as Britain’s, which has a policy of human rights with which one concurs. It is a bit more difficult when the democratic country has a slightly different policy — France and Belgium, have for example, government-sponsored organizations to “fight cults.” Nonetheless, INFORM has managed to dialogue to a greater or lesser degree with these governments, and, although we have disagreements about policy, we can and do employ social science methodology to illustrate the flaws in some of the information on which they have relied.

Even when we turn to a country such as China, I have found it possible to cooperate with officials to some extent by presenting them with alternative perspectives to those officially held by the government with respect to a movement such as Falun Gong, which is outlawed as an evil cult in the Republic.

Sharma: The issue could be framed as follows: where does our loyalty lie — does it lie with us as academics, or does it lie with us as citizens? The answer will depend on our identity — for loyalty is linked to identity. So the question may be rephrased: where does our identity lie — as a member of academia or as a citizen of a country?

This gives to the issue a certain clarity, but it gets blurred once the identities are examined closely. As an academic, do I identify as a member of the tradition I belong to? That is, do I have an emic identity, or do I relate to it as an outsider — do I identify in an etic way with my tradition? To exemplify: suppose I am asked by a hypothetically pro-Hindu government in India to take sides on the kind of issues roiling the relationship between the Hindu community and the academic community in the United States? What do I do?

As if this were not bad enough, my national identity could also be problematized. If I am a permanent resident in the United States but a citizen of India — like Amartya Sen, for instance, who has publicly declared that his Indian passport is a precious possession — in the midst of a conflict, whose interest should I heed: that of my host country or of my native country?

We began by framing the question as one of loyalty, and then reduced it to one of identity, but end up discovering that, both as a scholar and as a national, one may possess dual or even multiple identities.

Given the fact of multiple identities and the moral complexity generated thereby, the issue is perhaps best addressed on a case-by-case basis, with the recognition that most situations will be inevitably gray, involving hard choices. In such a situation what one might call the dharma-karma model may come in handy, as a particular application of these two concepts found within Hinduism. In the present case, dharma will represent the courses of action suggested by our complex internal moral compass, with the full realization that some ideals will have to be compromised, as in the following example from real life. Parents choose to get divorced with the full recognition that this is not in the best interest of  their children but have decided that, all things considered, this is their dharma—the right thing to do. Karma then represents the mature realization that we will have to live with the consequences of our moral decisions down the line, which in the above case may correspond to the possibility that the parents may well be called to account in later life by their children.

Casey: Over the course of the two terms of the Bush Administration, I believe more religion scholars found the prospect of cooperating with the national government increasingly unpalatable. I also believe that, while a majority of members of the AAR supported the candidacy of Barack Obama, the jury is still out over whether or not the academic religion guild will reconsider its hesitancy to work with any federal administration.

A range of unpopular policy positions, from the decision to invade Iraq to the use of Guantanamo Bay and the practice of torture, not to mention a host of economic policies, caused many scholars to recoil at the prospect of lending their expertise in advisory roles during the opening years of the new millennium. Any scholar who contemplates working with some part of the federal government has to engage in a complex internal negotiation over whether or not he or she can work with one segment of the government while disagreeing with some, perhaps many, other aspects of the government’s vast set of policy commitments. I do not believe this internal negotiation is subject to an easy resolution. Even the changing of administrations from a conservative to a more progressive one does not eliminate this complex negotiation. For example, the Obama administration’s current decision to send more American troops to Afghanistan makes the calculation difficult for many scholars.

Nevertheless, I would argue that AAR members should rethink the question of their duty as public intellectuals and scholars to see if there might be ways of engaging the new administration. The AAR remains largely invisible in Washington, D.C. As scholars, we often see the folly of many government policies, yet we often remain on the sidelines when it comes to actually shaping such policies. While it is true that government agencies often possess a tin ear when it comes to understanding the public implications of religious scholarship, the efforts of our academic guild to correct this problem remain weak.

The final consideration I think is a decidedly moral one. The planet is facing a set of economic, environmental, interreligious, and military issues of crisis proportions. Can we afford to be on the sidelines when our expertise might ameliorate some, if not all, of these crises?


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