How Trigger Warnings Silence Religious Students

Practices meant to protect marginalized communities can also ostracize those who disagree with them.

Students attend a Baptist Campus Ministry service at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. (Brittany Greeson / Reuters)

Last week, the University of Chicago’s dean of students sent a welcome letter to freshmen decrying trigger warnings and safe spaces—ways for students to be warned about and opt out of exposure to potentially challenging material. While some supported the school’s actions, arguing that these practices threaten free speech and the purpose of higher education, the note also led to widespread outrage, and understandably so. Considered in isolation, trigger warnings may seem straightforwardly good. Basic human decency means professors like myself should be aware of students’ traumatic experiences, and give them a heads up about course content—photographs of dead bodies, extended accounts of abuse, disordered eating, self-harm—that might trigger an anxiety attack and foreclose intellectual engagement. Similarly, it may seem silly to object to the creation of safe spaces on campus, where members of marginalized groups can count on meeting supportive conversation partners who empathize with their life experiences, and where they feel free to be themselves without the threat of judgment or censure.

In response to the letter, some have argued that the dean willfully ignored or misunderstood these intended purposes to play up a caricature of today’s college students as coddled and entitled. Safe spaces and trigger warnings pose no real threat to free speech, these critics say—that idea is just a specter conjured up by crotchety elites who fear empowered students.

Perhaps. But as a professor of religious studies, I know firsthand how debates about trigger warnings and safe spaces can have a chilling effect on classroom discussions. It’s not my free speech I’m worried about; professors generally feel confident presenting difficult or controversial material, although some may fear for their jobs after seeing other faculty members subjected to intense and public criticism. Students, on the other hand, do not have that assurance. Their ability to speak freely in the classroom is currently endangered—but not in the way some of their peers might think. Although trigger warnings and safe spaces claim to create an environment where everyone is free to speak their minds, the spirit of tolerance and respect that inspires these policies can also stifle dialogue about controversial topics, particularly race, gender, and, in my experience, religious beliefs.

Students should be free to argue their beliefs without fear of being labeled intolerant or disrespectful, whether they think certain sexual orientations are forbidden by God, life occurs at the moment of conception, or Islam is the exclusive path to salvation; and conversely, the same freedom should apply to those who believe God doesn’t care about who we have sex with, abortion is a fundamental right, or Islam is based on nothing more than superstitious nonsense. As it stands, that freedom does not exist in most academic settings, except when students’ opinions line up with what can be broadly understood as progressive political values.

Trigger warnings and safe spaces are terms that reflect the values of the communities in which they’re used. The loudest, most prominent advocates of these practices are often the people most likely to condemn Western yoga as “cultural appropriation,” to view arguments about the inherent danger of Islam as hate speech, or to label arguments against affirmative action as impermissible microaggressions. These advocates routinely use the word “ally” to describe those who support their positions on race, gender, and religion, implying that anyone who disagrees is an “enemy.”

Understood in this broader context, trigger warnings and safe spaces are not merely about allowing traumatized students access to education. Whatever their original purpose may have been, trigger warnings are now used to mark discussions of racism, sexism, and U.S. imperialism. The logic of this more expansive use is straightforward: Any threat to one’s core identity, especially if that identity is marginalized, is a potential trigger that creates an unsafe space.

But what about situations in which students encounter this kind of discussion from fellow students? Would a University of Chicago freshman want to express an opinion that might make her someone’s enemy? Would she want to be responsible for intolerant, disrespectful hate speech that creates an unsafe space? Best, instead, to remain silent.

This attitude is a disaster in the religious-studies classroom. As the Boston University professor Stephen Prothero put it in his book God Is Not One, “Students are good with ‘respectful,’ but they are allergic to ‘argument.’” Religion can be an immensely important part of one’s identity—for many, more important than race or sexual orientation. To assert that a classmate’s most deeply held beliefs are false or evil is to attack his or her identity, arguably similar to the way in which asserting that a transgender person is mistaken about their gender is an attack on their identity.

Objections to “anti-Muslim” campus speakers as promoting “hate speech” and creating a “hostile learning environment” vividly illustrate the connection between contentious assertions about religion, trigger warnings, and safe spaces. The claim that Islam—or, by implication, any religious faith—is false or dangerous is indistinguishable from hostile hate speech. To make such a claim in class is to be a potential enemy of fellow students, to marginalize them, disrespect them, and make them feel unsafe. If respect requires refraining from attacking people’s identity, then the only respectful discussion of religion is one in which everyone affirms everyone else’s beliefs, describes those beliefs without passing judgment, or simply remains silent.

As Prothero notes, that’s usually what ends up happening. According to anonymous in-class surveys, about one-third of my students believe in the exclusive salvific truth of Christianity. But rarely do these students defend their beliefs in class. In private, they have told me that they believe doing so could be construed as hateful, hostile, intolerant, and disrespectful; after all, they’re saying that if others don’t believe what they do, they’ll go to hell. Then there are my students, about one-fourth of them, who think no religion is true. They probably agree with Thomas Jefferson that the final book of the New Testament is “merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation, than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.” But they’d never say so in class. This kind of comment would likely seem even worse when directed at religious minorities, including those who practice Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism.

One could make the case that students who refrain from religious debate are making a mistake by confusing religious identity, which is free game for criticism, with racial and gender identity, which are not. Racial and gender identity deserve special consideration because they are unchosen aspects of one’s biological and historical self, while religious identity is a set of propositions about reality that can be accepted or rejected on the basis of evidence and argument. But this argument is itself controversial. Religion is a part of one’s historical self, and to reject religious beliefs often means rejecting family and friends. (Nor, as Jews can attest, are the categories of religion and race separable.) Religion also has a great deal to say about sex and gender, and may shape people’s perceptions of their own sexuality or gender identity.

The unpleasant truth is that historically marginalized groups, including racial minorities and members of the LGBT community, are not the only people whose beliefs and identities are marginalized on many college campuses. Those who believe in the exclusive truth of a single revealed religion or those who believe that all religions are nonsensical are silenced by the culture of trigger warnings and safe spaces. I know this is true because I know these students are in my classroom, but I rarely hear their opinions expressed in class.

There is no doubt that in America, the perspective of white, heterosexual Christian males has enjoyed disproportionate emphasis, particularly in higher education. Trigger warnings, safe spaces, diversity initiatives, and attention to social justice: all of these are essential for pushing back against this lopsided power dynamic. But there is a very real danger that these efforts will become overzealous and render opposing opinions taboo. Instead of dialogues in which everyone is fairly represented, campus conversations about race, gender, and religion will devolve into monologues about the virtues of tolerance and diversity. I have seen it happen, not only at the University of Chicago, my alma mater, but also at the school where I currently teach, James Madison University, where the majority of students are white and Christian. The problem, I’d wager, is fairly widespread, at least at secular universities.

Silencing these voices is not a good thing for anyone, especially the advocates of marginalized groups who hope to sway public opinion. Take for example the idea that God opposes homosexuality, a belief that some students still hold. On an ideal campus, these students would feel free to voice their belief. They would then be confronted by opposing arguments, spoken, perhaps, by the very people whose sexual orientation they have asserted is sinful. At least in this kind of environment, these students would have an opportunity to see the weaknesses in their position and potentially change their minds. But if students do not feel free to voice their opinions, they will remain silent, retreating from the classroom to discuss their position on homosexuality with family, friends, and other like-minded individuals. They will believe, correctly in some cases, that advocates of gay rights see them as hateful, intolerant bigots who deserve to be silenced, and which may persuade them to cling with even greater intensity to their convictions.

A more charitable interpretation of the University of Chicago letter is that it is meant to inoculate students against allergy to argument. Modern, secular, liberal education is supposed to combine a Socratic ideal of the examined life with a Millian marketplace of ideas. It is boot camp, not a hotel. In theory, this will produce individuals who have cultivated their intellect and embraced new ideas via communal debate—the kind of individuals who make good neighbors and citizens.

The communal aspect of the debate is important. It demands patience, open-mindedness, empathy, the courage to question others and be questioned, and above all, attempting to see things as others do. But even though academic debate takes place in a community, it is also combat. Combat can hurt. It is literally offensive. Without offense there is no antagonistic dialogue, no competitive marketplace, and no chance to change your mind. Impious, disrespectful Socrates was executed in Athens for having the temerity to challenge people’s most deeply held beliefs. It would be a shame to execute him again.