You may have heard of the Martin Gaskell case (P. Z. Myers posted a summary of the situation last week). Gaskell, an astronomer at the University of Texas, applied for a job running the observatory at The University of Kentucky. Questions arose about whether his evangelical Christianity, and apparent embrace of creationism, would render him unsuitable for the job. He didn’t get it, and is suing in federal court for unlawful denial of employment based on his religious beliefs and expression thereof. The case goes to trial in February.
An article in yesterday’s New York Times (and one in Friday’s Washington Post) summarizes the situation. The National Center for Science Education has posted many of the legal documents, including the original complaint, depositions, and intra-department emails at Kentucky. As the NYT reports:
For the plaintiff, the smoking gun is an e-mail dated Sept. 21, 2007, from a department staff member, Sally A. Shafer, to Dr. Cavagnero and another colleague. Ms. Shafer wrote that she did an Internet search on Dr. Gaskell and found links to his notes for a lecture that explores, among other topics, how the Bible could relate to contemporary astronomy. [The email is on p. 104 of the deposition of Sally Shafer at the NCSE website].
“Clearly this man is complex and likely fascinating to talk with,” Ms. Shafer wrote, “but potentially evangelical. If we hire him, we should expect similar content to be posted on or directly linked from the department Web site.”
Shafer refers here to a summary of Gaskell’s views at one of his websites, a lecture called “Modern Astronomy, the Bible and Creation”. It turns out that Gaskell is an old-earth creationist with significant doubts about evolution and some admiration for intelligent design, which he considers a nonreligious hypothesis. Here’s an excerpt:
The main controversy has been between people at the two extremes (young earth creationists and humanistic evolutionists). “Creationists” attack the science of “evolutionists”. I believe that this sort of attack is very bad both scientifically and theologically. The “scientific” explanations offered by “creationists” are mostly very poor science and I believe this sort of thing actually hinders some (many?) scientists becoming Christians. It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations. It is the latter that “creationists” should really be attacking (many books do, in fact, attack these unwarranted assumptions and extrapolations).
While discussing controversies and interpretations of Genesis I should mention something that has been much debated in recent years but is not an interpretation of Genesis: what is called “Intelligent Design”. This movement, which is often erroneously confused with young-earth creationism, is just exploring the question of what evidence there is in the universe for design by an intelligence. This is really a general, non-religious question (although with obvious religious implications), and there is no opinion on the interpretation of Genesis.
Also worth mentioning under different viewpoints is the Islamic creationist movement in the Muslim world. The leading spokesman of this is the Turkish writer, Harun Yahya, whose work is widely read in the Moslem world. Yahya is non-committal about the age of the earth. . .
Yet he’s not a raving “God-poofed-us-into-being” creationist, either. In fact, he suggests that although God may have created the first organism, he used evolution as his method for creating other species:
It is worth noting that Genesis does not always say “God created”. In the case of “cattle and creeping things”, God says “Let the earth bring forth…”. To me this implies that life has been brought forth out from the material of the earth. Mankind is no exception to this, as in Genesis 2:7 we are explicitly told that we are formed “of the dust from the ground”. Although this is getting outside the realm of astronomy, it should be realized that, despite some popular claims to the contrary, science has no satisfactory explanation of the origins of life yet. Note that the question of the origin of life is a separate problem from the question of the validity of some theories of evolution. The evidence is very good (and gets stronger every year) that all life on earth descended (i.e., evolved from) from a common origin. There is still a problem of the ultimate origin of life. A discussion of the current controversies over evolutionary theory and how Christians view these controversies, is beyond the scope of this handout, but the now extensive literature discussing and reviewing books such as those of Phillip E. Johnson (“Darwin on Trial”) and of biochemist Michael J. Behe (“Darwin’s Black Box”) will give you some of the flavor of the diversity of opinion of Christian biologists (and geologists).Although I’m sidestepping biology issues, I do want to give one quote. It’s by the Nobel prize winning neuro-biologist and author of several noted books in the body-mind problem, Sir John Eccles: “We come to exist through a divine act. That divine guidance is a theme throughout our life; at our death the brain goes, but that divine guidance and love continues. Each of us is a unique, conscious being, a divine creation. It is the religious view. It is the only view consistent with all the evidence.” [“The Intellectuals Speak Out About God”, p. 50]. This is probably a good place to state that I personally have no theological problem with the idea of God doing things in the ways described in modern theories of evolution (i.e., “theistic evolution”). [My emphasis].
I don‘t think this issue is as clear cut as P.Z.—and the NCSE, as expressed in an email from Eugenie Scott—seem to think. Yes, doubts about the theory of evolution may reflect on Gaskell’s scientific acumen, and thus his fitness for the job as a scientist (particularly an “outreach” scientist, as the job at Kentucky would have been), but do Gaskell’s views, as expressed above, really put him way out of the mainstream of scientists as a whole? He seems to be a theistic evolutionist, not that far removed from, say, scientists like Kenneth Miller (who believes in divine intercession in the creation of humans), many of the writers of the Clergy Letter Project, or, indeed, the Catholic Church, which accepts evolution but believes that God interceded at least once, inserting a soul in the human lineage. Is he so different from Owen Gingerich, an astronomer at Harvard who is also a theistic evolutionist and thinks that some mutations may have been “inspired” by God?
It’s one thing to have a university biologist espousing creationism, another to have a university astronomer espousing theistic evolution. It’s yet a third to have a man denied a job not because his scientific views are unsound, but because those scientific views arise from his faith. And, unfortunately, the internal documents at the U of K (I haven’t read them all) are not clear on this distinction. If Gaskell were hired, is it proper to worry about what he would say about biology on his own time? Doesn’t that violate freedom of speech? Would it be okay if he simply kept his views on evolution as non-official, personal opinions?
After all, Gaskell would have been hired as an astronomer, not a biologist. Would these issues have arisen if he was considered for a position in economics, sociology, or archaeology? After all, worries about scientific acumen would apply to all fields that rely on empirical research, not just science.
I tend to think that Gaskell’s scientific views should be considered when he’s being hired as a scientist, but I am not as vehement about this as, say, P.Z. And, knowing the religious climate of Kentucky, I’d be surprised if Gaskell wasn’t hired simply because he was religious—instead of not being hired because he accepts bad science. Still, the documents and depositions, which are what the court has to go on before trial, don’t seem clear on the point.
So I throw this open for debate: is Gaskell’s form of theistic evolutionism sufficient to disquality him from a job as an astronomer? How seriously should his views have been considered?