Ball State University’s investigation of professor Eric Hedin continues. Hedin, you’ll recall, was accused of teaching creationism as well as proselytizing for Jesus in an undergraduate science course, and newspapers and websites continue to report and discuss the issue.
To me, the case is important because the issue of whether public universities —as opposed to public grade schools and high schools—can teach creationism or push a particular religious view has never been properly adjudicated by U.S. courts. Such proselytizing, and the teaching of intelligent design creationism (ID), has been ruled out of court in “lower level” schools as a violation of our Constitution’s First Amendment. Nevertheless, many of my fellow academics claim that the First Amendment doesn’t apply in this way to public universities. That’s because, they say, issues of academic freedom (“a professor can teach what he wants”), and the elective nature of many college courses, make the First Amendment inapplicable at the university level.
I find that opinion baffling. Many high-school courses, such as advanced placement courses, are optional too, and one can always get home schooled, yet the First Amendment still applies. It also applies at public high school sporting events, where public or student-led prayers are unconstitutional even though attendance at the games is optional.
As for academic freedom, that is not enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, nor does it mean what people like P. Z. Myers and Larry Moran think it means. It’s not a license to teach anything you want in the classroom, including astrology, spiritual healing, and creationism. Rather, it’s a license to do what research you want—a license to inquire freely in your academic career. And even that “freedom” is circumscribed, for you’re not going to get tenure at a good university doing research “proving” creationism or the efficacy of telekinesis. (Once you have tenure, of course, you can pretty much do what you want without fear of being fired.) Academic freedom is about inquiry, not about teaching. Finally, professors at public universities are, like those in all public schools, employees and agents of the state, and their speech in the classroom can be construed as government speech.
Tomorrow I’ll discuss a reviewed and published article by a legal scholar that makes exactly these points with respect to public universities. It may be an eye-opener for those who claim (without legal training or knowledge) that First Amendment principles are trumped by academic freedom in public universities.
But let me once again give my take on what I think Ball State should do. The university should 1. Remove Hedin’s honors symposium as a science class, 2. Move it, if he still wants to teach it, to a philosophy or religion curriculum, 3. Tell Hedin he has to offer more balance in his course, giving viewpoints of nonreligious scholars like Sean Carroll, Victor Stenger, or Lawrence Krauss, and 4. absolutely prohibit Hedin from pushing his personal religious views (Christianity) on his students. For the record, I do not think Hedin should be fired, but his classes should certainly be monitored. If I pushed atheism on my students the way Hedin pushes Christianity, I would deserve similar treatment.
In the meantime, writers continue to give their opinions. One is by the former Official Website Uncle™, Dr. Karl Giberson, who lost that title through dogged and unreasoning adherence to evangelical Christianity. In his new HuffPo piece on the Hedin case, “Teaching students about God and science,” he demonstrates once again why he lost his title to Eric MacDonald.
Giberson, a critic of ID, teaches classes similar to Hedin’s at his own school, Stonehill College in Massachusetts, feels that Hedin’s course is unbalanced and not a good cause célèbre for academic freedom. Giberson’s take on this is, then, reasonable:
I can hardly agree with the intelligent design folk at the Discovery Institute that this is an academic freedom case. Academic freedom is a noble, if ambiguous, concept that can be invoked in support of many things but one of those is not the freedom to tell students things that are not true. If, as the syllabus suggests, Hedin’s students are learning that the ideas of the intelligent design movement are the cutting edge of science and heralding a major revolution, there are grounds for concern. If the students leave Hedin’s class believing that the scientific community is wrestling with the proposals that have come out of the intelligent design movement, then they have been misled and poorly served. Most practicing scientists understand that their disciplines have unanswered questions and “boundaries” of some sort. But virtually none of them are looking to an external “designer” to answer these questions.
Hedin’s assigned readings and bibliography are somewhat unbalanced, although one of the two required texts is a solid popularization of conventional big bang cosmology, unadorned by theological speculation. However, were students to infer that the extensive bibliography list covers the bases for the discussion of the “Boundaries of Science” they would be mistaken. Of the roughly 20 books listed, half advocate basic intelligent design with the remainder divided evenly between books by Christians sympathetic to raising constructive questions about God in the context of science — like Keith Ward and myself — or non-theists with minority viewpoints that resonate in some way with traditional theism — like Roger Penrose and Paul Davies. Noticeably absent are genuinely critical books of the sort written by Vic Stenger, Steven Weinberg and even Jerry Coyne that address the same issues but offer informed atheistic responses.
Good for ex-uncle Karl. But he goes off the rails in two ways. First, he says that there’s no evidence that Hedin engaged in Christian proselytizing in class:
No evidence whatsoever supports Jerry Coyne’s claim that Hedin is “proseletyzing for Jesus” in his Boundaries of Science class. Coyne is notorious for pretending not to understand the difference between a philosophically motivated theism and Christian fundamentalism and has waded into this controversy with his usual blinkered culture war mentality.
That’s simply not true. There are at least three published “complaints” on RateMyProfessors.com (out of 15 total) noting Hedin’s pushing of Christianity. Note that the 15 are from of all of Hedin’s classes—and he teaches several—not just from the honors course at issue. I’ll reproduce them again for Karl’s delectation (he mentions just one of these):
Further, there are at least two other students who have written detailed complaints about Hedin’s proselytizing in the Honors class (his statements are worse than you can imagine), but haven’t yet decided whether to go public with their complaints. (You can imagine the ostracism they’d face!) I’m not at liberty to publish their statements yet, but hope that I can soon. I’ve mentioned at least one of these other complaints on my site, and I’m not lying about it, so Karl is just wrong.
As for Karl’s statement that I’m “notorious for pretending not to understand the difference between a philosophically motivated theism and Christian fundamentalism and has waded into this controversy with his usual blinkered culture war mentality,” well, that’s just mean-spirited, un-Christian for a Christian, and, worse, wrong. I certainly understand the difference between fundamentalism and “philosophically motivated theism” and have never pretended otherwise. The problem is that the latter isn’t any more respectable than the former. Indeed, in some ways it’s worse, since “philosophically motivated theism” is usually espoused by smart people who should know better and by those who, like Giberson, have science training and should know how to distinguish evidenced from nonevidenced beliefs. Really, Karl, if we’re getting personal here, let me respond that you’re a smart guy, so how can you believe all that crap?
As for “blinkered culture war” mentality (and yes, it is a culture war, involving superstition versus reason), Giberson ends with this:
Eric Hedin is an assistant science professor, popular with most of his students. He needs to get promoted to associate and then full professor. If he works hard, he will get tenured along the way. And my guess is that his interdisciplinary explorations, like those of many thinkers inclined to consider the larger context of their fields, will become more sophisticated as time passes. If not, his colleagues won’t vote him tenure. In the meantime, Ball State doesn’t need external culture warriors telling them how to run their university.
Hedin’s been an untenured professor for over a decade, and was at a religious college before that. There’s no sign of him becoming more sophisticated. His Christian-soaked syllabus in 2013 is pretty much what it was in the past.
As for BSU not needing culture warriors to oppose them, of course they do—that is, if that school wants to retain any credibility of being an academically sound institution. Were we supposed to sit back and let Hedin shove Jesus down his students’ throats, as well as presenting creationism in his science class? Well excuse me for informing Hedin’s chair (and then, when the chair did nothing, the Freedom from Religion Foundation) about his course. None of us, including the FFRF told anyone what to do—we simply informed the university of the dangers of its present course. And if they let Hedin continue his religious proselytizing in science class, they’re fools.
And if Hedin gets away with this, so can anybody else, and then it’s Christianity in science classes everywhere. As Clarence Darrow said on the second day of the Scopes trial:
Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.
Here’s a lovely editorial by the benighted Ron Coody in the the Fort Wayne (Indiana) News Sentinel : “Intolerant critics of BSU prof lose scientific objectivity to an ideology.” Coody favors the “science is a religion” trope:
On the other hand, Coyne and many others in the secular academy have made science into a religion. They brazenly assert that science proves atheism. Their religion is atheism and they use their classrooms to spread their religion.
When a physicist like Dr. Hedin dares to suggest that science does not prove atheism and furthermore surmises that there are questions about truth it might never answer, the atheists assemble their inquisition.
Like the outspoken atheist biology professor at my son’s university who mocked a student one day in class for saying, “Bless you” to a friend who sneezed, they will resort to shaming, bullying, intimidation and sometimes outright deceit to promote atheism. They want to engineer an Orwellian world where no one can question the myth that modern physics and biology have proven there is no God.
These kinds of people are not only intolerant. They have lost scientific objectivity to an ideology.
I dare Coody to show where I have ever said that science proves atheism. And I dare him to show that I’ve tried to spread atheism in my classroom. Frankly, Coody is an outright liar. What I have said—and on this site and in my writings, not in my class—is that science (and rationality) has given no evidence for the existence of gods, and so I choose not to believe in them.
And what “deceit” have I, or any other BSU critic, practiced? Coody again is lying here. I always wonder if Coody and others who denigrate science for being “like religion”, or a “nonobjective ideology” have ever pondered the implications of that view for religion itself. By trying to drag science down to the level of religion, they’re implicitly criticizing religion.
Finally, a neutral piece from The Christian Post on the Hedin affair, “Ball State University Professor Awaiting Decision for Teaching Creationism.” It does include a new quote from the Discovery Institute (ID Central):
Dr. John G. West, vice president of the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, told The Christian Post that the investigation of Hedin was a matter of academic freedom.
“Prof. Hedin is an outstanding professor who has published many peer-reviewed technical articles in his field,” said West. ”Contrary to published reports, there is absolutely no evidence that he teaches or even believes in ‘creationism,’ the idea that the earth was created just a few thousand years ago in 6 literal 24-hour days.”
West also told CP that he hoped Ball State would decide to “be fair and courageous and stand up for Professor Hedin’s rights.”
“State University [sic] needs to allow Prof. Hedin the same freedom it gives every other faculty member on its campus. Unfortunately, we’ve seen universities and other institutions intimidated in the past on this issue,” said West.
Three things wrong here. First, intelligent design is creationism, just not young-earth, literalist creationism. Second, and again, “academic freedom” refers to freedom of inquiry, not freedom to tell your students anything you want. And it’s also a matter of First Amendment rights. Third, I don’t know if any other BSU professor gets away with touting Jesus in the class, so West’s statement that other professors have the same “freedom” is misguided.
h/t: SGM, Amy