Reflections of a Biblical Empiricist
John D. Foubert, Ph.D.
Although there was no official start date to my involvement in working to end sexual violence, I trace my involvement to 1993 when I was a year into my first job out of my master’s program and a group of students from a sexual assault peer education group came to me and said they were having trouble reaching the men on campus. They asked if I would help them create a program for men on the subject. I eagerly accepted, and went about trying to find successful programs. As someone who had a degree in psychology with an emphasis in quantitative research, how I defined success was a pretest/posttest evaluation, preferably with long term results and a control group. To my surprise, after reviewing available research, I could find none. When I dug deeper, I was perplexed as to why the programs that were available were written as they were. Those that I could get my hands on treated men as potential rapists in a condescending fashion. I saw that a new approach was needed, so, I wrote what was the first version of The Men’s Program – a rape prevention program that has been through numerous revisions since and has since been demonstrated to be associated with a decline in sexual violence among high risk men who see it. The peer education groups I worked with later chose the name One in Four, a group I lead on a national level still today. As a young professional, I was energized by finding an area where I could make a difference, where I could connect with students in a meaningful way, and where I could fill a much needed void. I also found, over time, that this area was a calling. It would prove to be excruciatingly difficult.
In almost every setting in which I have and continue to take part in this movement, I am an outsider. In my youthful naiveté and with my lack of education on the subject of worldview, I blindly assumed that everyone shared mine. Thus, I spent a great deal of time talking past people and few listened. Though many folks still have little to no respect for my perspective, I have come to understand a reason why. The two interrelated aspects of my worldview that bear on this discussion, in stark contrast to many in the movement to end gender based violence, are that I am a bible believing disciple of Jesus Christ and aside from matters of scripture, I am an empiricist: a worldview I define as a “Biblical Empiricist.”
As an empiricist, I view uncertain phenomena (for example, how to best prevent rape) to be open to investigation and measurable through observed facts and evidence. I believe that we find answers through the weight of supporting evidence. In my view, on matters where there isn’t scriptural certainty, we have empirical methods to submit observed facts to tests of statistical significance. We can test hypotheses know by a level of probability how likely a claim is relative to chance. If a phenomenon isn’t due to chance, it is more likely to be true.
Over time I found that the vast majority of people with whom I interacted in the movement to end sexual violence had opposing and often visceral reactions to my ideas. I was blind to the roots of these differences for many years. Though I had no delusions that I would find a common Biblical framework with others in the field, I did believe that people would (naturally) have an empirical point of view. Given that, I thought that when I completed my dissertation showing support that a a rape prevention program was successful in meeting many of its objectives that it would then follow that people nationwide would a) notice its success b) accept the evidence as valid and c) adopt it en masse with immediacy. Laughter is an appropriate response to this assumption in retrospect. I didn’t understand that most people in the movement to end gender based violence, most people in higher education, indeed most people in society function from a postmodernist framework.
The fundamental point of postmodernism is that there is no objective reality or ultimate truth. Everything is relative; there are no moral or ethical absolutes. Truth is a matter of perspective or point-of-view. Each individual constructs his or her own understanding of reality. My empirical point of view clashed with the movement like two people thinking they were speaking the same language but who were really cursing at each other using every word one still cannot say on prime time television. The more I talked about the results of my latest study, the more the postmodernists assumed that I was making claims to truth in a world where they viewed that there could be none. The more I talked about the results of the program that I wrote only by the providence of God, the more people interpreted it as self-promotion. I was trapped in a foreign country where only those who took the time to know me very well could discern my location.
As a college professor, I teach new graduate students about worldviews through a hypothetical scenario. “A 20 year old man walks up to a 3 year old girl standing on a busy street corner. He pushes her into the street just as a 50 passenger bus is about to pass by; she is killed when the wheels of the bus crush her to death in front of a large crowd of people. They have no prior relationship, never saw each other before, have no reason for any conflict, and I can think of no detail I’d consider pertinent about this hypothetical scenario that I’m holding back from you. There is nothing else to it. Are the 20 year old man’s actions wrong?” Every time I give this scenario to students, a sizeable minority of them refuse to say that the 20 year old man’s actions were wrong. One student I had summed it up best by saying “Well, maybe pushing her in the street was right for him.” This sums up one of the many fatal flaws of our postmodern culture. We have taught the present generation that even in the most extreme cases, they can’t call behavior “wrong.”
A major reason I stay involved in the movement to end sexual assault is my view that postmodernism is destroying efforts to end rape. Postmodernists argue that there are no means to establish whether one idea is better than another, everything is relative. I ask, how then can we say that rape is wrong? How can we expect anyone to intervene to prevent rape if there is no right or wrong? Given that there is substantial data that several prevention programs have made a significant dent in men’s unhealthy attitudes and behavior. Other programs do nothing, or do more harm than good. The movement needs people within it who will say what has been shown to work, what does not, and that some emperors have no clothes. In addition, there are very few people in the movement who operate from a biblical worldview. For the diversity of ideas and perspectives in the field, I believe it is important for someone with my views to be represented. Though my programs do not offer a ‘faith based’ component per se, they are written by a man of faith, and that moral and ethical center has value.
Over time, I experienced several turning points in my understanding of sexual violence that enriched my work, even if many of them were painful. My work has been criticized publicly in more ways than I can count. Though the means and tone of the criticism has not always been professional or even legal, it has provided many opportunities to improve my work. Improving my work means helping more people, and it has made me stronger.
As if being a man involved in the movement to send sexual assault and being a Bible believing Christian wasn’t enough to invite controversy, my latest research has been about the harms of pornography. This is one more area where extreme violence is being perpetrated and few people are speaking out against it. It is also an area where people who are impervious to personal attacks and who will speak out against injustice are sorely needed. I’ve found it to be an area where I can unite issues about which I am most passionate. As I continue to discover how pornography use is associated with lower likelihood of bystander intervention and I speak publicly about the many harms of the porn industry, many postmodernists bristle at the thought that anything that feels good could be wrong. As long as the results of research keep identifying the undeniable harms of pornography, and I still feel called by my creator to do what I’m doing, I’ll still be speaking, writing, and if necessary, shouting from the rooftops that rape is wrong and pornography is undeniably harmful.