"Potentially Evangelical" a Rare Example Amongst Scientists?


Genesis - h.koppdelaney's Flickr photostream Creative Commons

As reported in today's The New York Times, a case will be reviewed by a federal judge in Kentucky this February to determine whether an academic astronomer was denied a position because of religious faith. According to the report, this case is a "rare example" of such a law suit.

The role of faith in scientific thinking has always been a contentious one. {That may well be a vast understatement.} How does one balance faith vs. reason? Or can a scientist, the rationalist, maintain faith, if not call upon it for inspiration?

This news report cited a curious phrase: "potentially evangelical" as a pejorative. In the context of this case, a concern that a scientist hired for the role, in part, of "lecturing publically on science" might invoke religion is not unreasonable. It seems relevant that the University of Kentucky campus is within 100 miles of the Creation Museum. Since federal law prohibits discrimination based upon religion, a candidate's religion cannot play a role in hiring decisions.

Today's report is the first that I have heard of this case, so I cannot comment on any specifics - that should be left to the pending federal case. It is interesting that The New York Times report cited a 1998 survey of astronomers and physicists in the National Academy of Sciences which concluded that "7.5 percent believed in God". Does that mean that 92.5 percent don't? I doubt it. I know a number of scientists who not only have religious faith, but are even involved in evangelism. It is a matter of separating one's professional and private lives.

Will being considered "potentially evangelical" become the next "Don't ask, don't tell"?

What do you think?


More like this

The primary problem is that Prof. Gaskell is a serious denier of evolution, and has been outspoken about it in his writings and actions. The position he was interviewing for was not completely a research position, but one in which he would be working with science teachers and people from other disciplines at the university. Why should the university hire someone who is more than willing to spout stupidity (intelligent design as a scientific theory) while representing them. There was legitimate concern about his anti-science points of view contaminating his work, as well as concern expressed from the biology department about their ability to work with him.
There seem to be other things at work here: he has a large publishing record in his area, but still has not managed to be awarded tenure anywhere in his career. That indicates a history of employer issues.

When applying for teaching jobs at religiously affiliated colleges, I was asked if A) I believed that one's off-campus deportment should reflect the values of the college, and B) if I intended to join and attend a local church. I answered Yes and No, respectively. I do feel that one's off-campus behavior (not beliefs, but behavior) are a legitimate concern. So, the question is not what beliefs a "potentially evangelical" new hire might have, but what behaviors they have engaged in or would engage in that might reflect on their position at the college. So, writing something like this:
Is both religious behavior (protected) and highly relevant behavior of a scientist and educator.

Thank you for your comment. You bring up an important exception: positions at institutions in which their mission statement includes religious commitment. While this cannot apply to public institutions, there are many examples in the private sector not limited to academia.

The role of faith in scientific thinking has always been a contentious one.

There is no surer way to have a view dismissed or paper rejected than by putting forward some of its claims as a matter of faith, rather than offering other kinds of evidence. Simply put, scientific thinking rejects faith as having any evidentiary bearing at all. I don't think that is much contended. The way believing scientists "balance" their science and faith is simple: they keep claims of faith out of their science.

That gets contentious only because such separation obviously is one of convenience, intellectual convenience for believer, and social convenience, regarding how much that one does outside one's profession impinges on it. I hope any respectable chemistry or pharmacy department would reject someone who forwards homeopathy. But should a history department do likewise? And does it make a difference if the applicant's area is the history of medicine in the 20th century, or the history of 11th century Byzantium? It's not always obvious where to draw the line.

There are strong arguments, legal and social, for bracketing religious belief from hiring judgments. So we try to ignore irrationality that doesn't impinge on someone's work. Deciding when something so impinges and when it matters is a social issue, often a subtle one, not so much a scientific one.

I agree with the first commenter.

Would the university be criticized for rejecting an applicant who was an outspoken Flat-Earth Society member? Or a chemist who believed the only elements are earth, water, air, and fire and that the periodic table and subatomic particles are a fraud? Although the previous poster has a good point that for some departments, it may be less relevant, it is VERY relevant in this case. If the university is looking for the public face of their science programs, they need someone who is up-to-date on science. Period. The only difference here is that there is no religious-based manufactroversy about flat earths or atomic theory, just evolution.

The Creationists (Intelligent Design proponents, whatever) use their few members with PhDs to bolster their claim that there is a "controversy" about evolution that makes it unfair not to teach their side along with evolution. I'm sure that both sides in the dispute realize that having a Creationist science outreach coordinator would be a major PR success for the Creationists. Even if he kept silent about his views on the job, he would carry the cachet of that position to any outside speaking engagements as well as his blog and other personal communications.

If someone has a religious-based objection to some aspect of their job, they need to find another career without that conflict. He could teach at a fundamentalist university, for example. I was appalled when 10% of my classmates in an upper-division biology class, most of them ecologists or marine biologists, petitioned our instructor to stop talking about evolution because it contradicted their religious beliefs. This was at a small public university with a strong biology program! (And, unfortunately, a lot of the locals were highly religious.)

It also bothers me when people choose a career, find some aspect that violates their religion, and petition for exemption from job duties. For example, pharmacists who refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions, or Muslim doctors in the UK who won't bare their arms to scrub between patients and successfully lobbied for exemption. How did these pharmacists get through pharmacy school before realizing that pharmacies dispense birth control? And why would modesty be more important than infection control?

I don't see why it should be acceptable for a science professor to reject a central concept of modern science just because he has a religious reason for it.

By Toxicology Kat (not verified) on 19 Dec 2010 #permalink

We need to distinguish between the following types of cases:

1) Person applying for a science position holds religious beliefs that differ from the canon of the relevant discipline, but intends to maintain appropriate compartmentalization between personal and professional life.

2) Person applying for science position intends to use it as a platform for promoting an unrelated agenda of whatever kind IN the classroom.

3) Person applying for science position intends to use their status with an institution as a source of credibility while promoting an unrelated agenda of whatever kind OUTSIDE of the classroom & university (etc.) context.

Cases of type (1) should be no problem. I once argued vociferously in favor of a PhD candidate in biology who believed in creationism, where the university demanded that he "believe in" evolution. To my mind that's going overboard: the university has every right to demand that he "know the material" in terms of current theory and findings, but not to demand orthodoxy of belief. (FYI, I find creationism to be pernicious twaddle, but here I'm defending the right of freedom of personal belief.)

Cases of type (2) are relatively easy to handle: put it in the standard employment contract that faculty are not to use the classroom as a platform for proselytizing. It would be acceptable for a faculty member to simply inform his/her students that he has heterodox beliefs about X that they're welcome to discuss elsewhere, and leave it at that; but beyond that, no active proselytizing.

Cases of type (3) could potentially be handled in a manner similar to that which applies to members of the military speaking out on public issues: "these opinions are my own, I do not speak for the military, I note my profession as a soldier only for purposes of identification," or some words to that effect. In other words a required disclaimer for the purpose of disassociating the individual's extracurricular activities from their professional activities.

All of this can be done in a manner that does not specify any particular belief system in a manner that is susceptible to abuse as a form of discrimination, whilst preventing the abuse of a faculty position as a means toward ulterior ends.

Or can a scientist, the rationalist, maintain faith, if not call upon it for inspiration?

I think it is wrong to generalize cases like this into a question of faith vs. science. Faith isn't a monolithic phenomenon, at least not it the aspects that are relevant to the issue at hand - faith in general need not be any sort of issue with hiring somebody for a scientific position, but certain specific faiths might well be.

Certain faith traditions - unsophisticated ones with great missionary zeal which allow adherents to lie in the pursuit of conversions - might very well be seen as a matter of concern in scientific hires. There seems to be a great reluctance to apply the same kind of objective analysis to faith traditions that are routinely applied to other fields of human behavior - or rather, not a reluctance to perform this kind of analysis, but just a reluctance to make use of the results. Sociologists should be readily able to grade various faith traditions on their affinity to science and identify which ones are potentially concerning in a candidate for a scientific position - and as long as this is done objectively and scientifically, it could also pass muster with regards to the anti-establishment clause.

But in practice, even referring to certain traditions as less sophisticated than others runs into problems with peoples' sensibilities, even when the determination is made as objectively and impartial as possible.

By Phillip IV (not verified) on 20 Dec 2010 #permalink

I want to thank each of you for your thoughtful comments. This is an excellent example of an intelligent discussion about a sensitive topic. Let's keep it going!

Will being considered "potentially evangelical" become the next "Don't ask, don't tell"?

No. Because 'Don't ask, don't tell' was about discriminating against people based upon what they were, not what they believe.

Well said. In some cases, people define themselves by their beliefs - "who they are" and what they believe is inextricable.

First of all, I agree completely with baldywilson @ #9 -- sexuality isn't a choice, and so isn't in any way comparable to religion. Comparing this incident to the DADT policy is somewhat insensitive.

However, I do understand what you're getting at, here. Faith can definitely be an impediment to advancement in the sciences, because many scientific and skeptically-minded people are quite vehemently anti-religion. And while there are times when we can't let political correctness get in the way of doing things in a scientific, fact-based manner (obviously mathematicians can't start rounding Pi to 3 because that's what it says in the Bible, and doctors shouldn't be able to refuse treatment based on their faith), in most cases it just doesn't matter what you believe, because it won't affect your work in the slightest.

I actually argued with a close friend about this very topic not too long ago. My friend works as a veterinary technician, and had discovered that one of the vets at the clinic is an evangelical Christian. This is a doctor whom my friend had previously admired and often complimented -- my friend enjoyed working with him. But after finding out about the doctor's faith, my friend began avoiding shifts where they would have to work together, and became very critical. Never did the Christian doctor let his faith interfere with the work being done, but suddenly my friend had lost all respect for this man, even to the point of not wanting to work with him any more.

That sort of bigotry is absolutely uncalled for, but sadly it's not uncommon. I'm openly pagan, and discussions of scientific topics sometimes devolve into mudslinging at my faith. Were I actually working in a scientific field, I'm sure I'd feel immense pressure to hide my private beliefs -- fortunately, as a mere hobbyist, I generally feel comfortable just laughing off such things and letting the discussion drop. There are occasions, though, when it's terribly frustrating to know that I have a valid point, or at least a question worth a thoughtful answer, and I'm being dismissed as a "silly little pagan" and disregarded. If this were a situation that was occurring in a professional setting, I'm sure it would very quickly grow to become completely intolerable.

I can understand why many skeptical, scientifically-minded atheists are so violently opposed to organized religion. Religious organizations have done immense harm by their backwards, unscientific ways of thinking. The trouble comes, I think, in separating a person's faith from the person themselves. A person who is, for ANY reason, failing to meet the requirements of their job, should face disciplinary action. If that reason happens to be faith-based, well, perhaps that person should consider another career. But if a person meets or exceeds all of their job's requirements, their personal life should never come into question. Separating faith from the equation entirely, and focusing instead on success or failure in its own right, is the only way to fairly and equitably deal with the question of religious faith in science-based professions.

Each man is entitled to his beliefs. Expressing one's faith without being dogmatic may be a challenge to some. Yet it must be stated that some elitist types do get offended by other's faiths even though they are vehement and outspoken supporters of their "own faith" in the unsupported theory of evolution.

... vehement and outspoken supporters of their "own faith" in the unsupported theory of evolution.

carlton, saying evolution is "unproven" and implying that accepting it must come "on faith" and not, as is fact, on the basis of thousands of studies, tests, and massive amounts of data, is one of the most foolish statements one can make. Those who say such things are either monumentally unschooled in science or, as we see from the discovery institute and those who shill for it, more than willing to lie about the science. Which camp are you in?