Sunday, December 11, 2005

Academic Freedom and Creationism

Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica just brought to my attention a disturbing series of events involving Professor Paul Mirecki of the University of Kansas. For a summary of what has happened to Mirecki, see this recent article from the Lawrence, Kansas, local newspaper - Embattled KU Professor. In short, he got into a lot of trouble for making intemperate remarks about creationists in on e-mail and on a discussion board, was forced to resign his position as chair of the religion department, and in addition, was beaten up by a couple of thugs who mentioned the controversy when attacking him (see Professor blasts KU, sheriff's investigation).

The remarks were made in connection with a course that he planned to offer (but eventually had to cancel) on creationism and intelligent design, entitled: "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies." One of his e-mail messages read: "The fundies (fundamentalists) want it all taught in a science class. But this will be a nice slap in their big, fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category 'mythology.''' Even before the e-mail was published, his announcement that he was teaching the class seems to have angered many people who were offended that he was calling creationism and intelligent design mythologies. (See this WorldNetDaily article for an account by someone offended by Mirecki's remarks).

I find this whole story very disturbing. While Mirecki should certainly have been more careful in what he wrote on e-mail, he's certainly free to do so (given both the First Amendment and principles of academic freedom). The only genuine concern I could see is in how he would have taught the class - he should be respectful of all students and permit students who disagree with him to speak.

Some members of the Kansas State Legislature, however, seem to have a weak grasp of what academic freedom is, and what it means to teach religion at a university (as opposed to a seminary).
The university’s action [cancelling Mirecki's course] wasn’t enough for conservative lawmakers, who said they want to know whether professors teaching other courses are letting their biases get in the way. “This may show a bigger problem than just Professor Mirecki,” said Rep. Brenda Landwehr, a Wichita Republican. “It may show we’re not providing fair and balanced opportunities to our students.”

Landwehr has called for hearings when the Legislature resumes next month. She said she wants to know whether professors are exhibiting any intolerance, whether it’s religious, political or any other kind.

Landwehr also questioned whether Mirecki should be allowed to teach religious studies courses. “It’s hard to teach religion if you don’t believe in it,” she said.

Sen. Kay O’Connor, an Olathe Republican, said public universities should not condone anti-Christian talk by professors. “We’re not in the taxpayer-funded hatred business,” she said. “Why should taxpayers give him an opportunity to profess his hatred for Christians?”
Landwehr doesn't seem to understand that it's possible to teach all sorts of things one doesn't believe in. One doesn't have to be religious to teach about religion. Nor is it wrong to criticize (or even make fun of) people who belong to other religions and their religious practices. (I don't think mockery belongs in the classroom, however - that's advocacy, not education).

Aside from the issue of the intemperance of Mirecki's language, the most disturbing feature is the idea that a religion course is not the proper place to discuss creationism and intelligent design. This is exactly the place to discuss these two ideologies/theologies. In fact, on Wednesday, in my Hebrew Scripture class, I asked my students to bring in news stories that mentioned the Bible in reference to contemporary issues. In one section we spent a lot of time discussing creationism/intelligent design, both in connection to the case of the Dover School Board, in Dover, Pennsylvania, and in Kansas. We discussed (briefly) what creationism/intelligent design are, how creationism derives from the biblical account of creation, and how intelligent design is also a theological way of understanding how life has come to be. At some point I would like to teach a class on the Bible in American life and culture, and the creationism vs. evolution debate is an obvious place to start. Other professors at my college also discuss this issue, from other points of view (for example, it's addressed in the biological anthropology classes).

There are other courses at the University of Kansas that do address these issues without being attacked by religious conservatives.
Walter Dimmick, associate professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology, said he taught students in his introduction to evolutionary biology course about natural theology and beliefs at the time of Charles Darwin. These topics are a starting point to his course on evolution. “Young people need to have an understanding of what science is and what science is not,” Dimmick said. Dimmick, who has taught this introductory class for three years, has never stirred controversy in or out of the classroom. Part of this may be due to his approach. “It’s not my job to try and change their religious beliefs,” he said.
I agree with Dimmick on that last point. In my Hebrew Scripture class I certainly introduce students to theories about the Bible that they will not have encountered before - the most prominent example being the documentary hypothesis - but I certainly don't require them to swear allegiance to them. I want them to understand the theories, not have faith in them. I'm not in the business of telling students what their religious beliefs should be. But just presenting these theories, whose intellectual basis is that human beings wrote the biblical texts and that it's possible to investigate their origins through literary and historical analysis, can be upsetting to some students, and not only to students who are self-identified as fundamentalist Christians. I don't like upsetting the students, but I do believe that in order to teach the Bible in an intellectually honest way, it's necessary to teach critical theories about the composition of the Bible.

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