Saturday, May 25, 2013

Religion vs. academic freedom

It's not quite burningly stupid, so it doesn't get the tag or the icon, but New Atheists Attack Academic Freedom is pretty close.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) wrote a letter to Jo Ann Gora, president of Ball State University, complaining that BSU professor Eric Hedin inappropriately mixes religion and science in his "Boundaries of Science" honors science class. The author of "New Atheists Attack Academic Freedom" (NAAAF) asserts that because there is no formal complainant, the FFRF's complaint is nothing but a publicity stunt. Furthermore, because the complaint addresses theistic evangelism in the classroom, the FFRF is being hypocritical because they do not address evident atheist evangelism in the classroom. The author of NAAAF concludes that because an outside organization is pressuring BSU to alter the content of its instruction, it is setting a dangerous precedent that might compromise academic freedom. While the author makes at least one good point, and is justly concerned about academic freedom, his case is too thin to be persuasive, and he fails to understand academic freedom in a thorough way.

The author makes an obvious error in attributing the FFRF's complaint to the New Atheists. The FFRF is an independent organization, and they speak only for themselves, not for the New Atheists in general. Indeed, some prominent New Atheists reject the action and the criticism of Professor Hedin. For example, Larry Moran, prominent New Atheist and University of Toronto Biochemistry Professor, criticizes the pressure against Prof. Hedin. In, Moran states flatly, "I defend the right of a tenured professor to teach whatever he/she believes to be true no matter how stupid it seems to the rest of us." New Atheist icon PZ Myers concurs with Moran: While Myers believes that Hedin's is a "crap course" with "bad science and bad teaching," he asserts that "professors have to have the right to teach unpopular, controversial issues, even from an ignorant perspective. The first amendment does not apply; this is not a course students are required to take, and it’s at a university, which students are not required to attend." Attributing the opposition to Hedin's course to the New Atheists is an unwarranted generalization flatly contradicted by the obvious evidence.

Substantively, it is hard to see the FFRF's action as undue pressure. The FFRF does not have any authority at all over BSU, and BSU can, if they choose, simply ignore the FFRF's complaint. Similarly, the University of Toronto has received complaints from creationists about Larry Moran's teaching of evolution, and the university simply ignores those complaints. At its most "intimidating," the FFRF complaint says only that Hedin's class "crosses ethical and constitutional lines." In contrast, Corey Robin reports a recent challenge to academic freedom at City University of New York's Brooklyn College. Aside from the academic content, the key difference is that the BC complaint was made by a governmental authority with control over CUNY's budget. For an action to be undue pressure, the complainant has to have some institutional power over the defendant; the FFRF does not have any power over BSU; its complaint, therefore, is not undue pressure.

While I agree with Moran and Myers that academic freedom is important, academic freedom does not and should not be above the law, especially Constitutional law. Although he is a Canadian, Moran is scared that if the United States Constitution forbids advocating religion in the classroom, then it might be illegal in the United States to criticize religion in the classroom. Moran's concern, however, is misplaced. Constitutional law does not prohibit religion as such; instead, it requires secularism. For example, even though Sunday is clearly the weekly holiday for the majority Christian sect, the Supreme Court has held that requiring businesses to close on Sunday is constitutional, because the law has the secular purpose of providing a community-wide day of rest, peace, and quiet. Thus, if Hadin's course were to be found unconstitutional, at least under the Lemon Test, it would not be because it had religious content, it would be because it violated one of the prongs of the Lemon Test: it lacked a clear secular purpose, it had the primary effect of advancing or inhibiting religion, or it entailed "excessive government entanglement" with religion.

If some specific criticism of religion violated any of these prongs, it would be justly forbidden. But most criticism of religion in academia is implied, not overt. It has a clear primary secular purpose, teaching science, and teaching science, with all its contradictions of the truth claims of religion, does not entail excessive entanglement in religion. But if a professor at a publicly funded university does conduct a class with the primary purpose of inhibiting religion, his or her remarks are illegal and inappropriate. In this sense, the charge of the author of NAAAF has a valid prima facie point: if professors at public universities really are pushing atheism per se in the classroom, they are are violating the law and behaving just as inappropriately as the FFRF believes Professor Hedin is behaving. (Of course, it is possible that the complaints against atheist professors cited in NAAAF are substantively incorrect, which is why most universities require actual investigations before taking action.)

But more importantly, what are the limitations, if any, on academic freedom? To what extent does the non-academic public have a right to discuss and criticize what professors do in academia? It's pretty clear that actual legislative bodies directly interfering with academic content, as at CUNY, is definitely problematic and probably inappropriate. But Moran and Myers seem to go farther. Moran says,
I'm troubled by the fact that some people are calling for the instructor's dismissal and writing letters to the chair of his department. We really don't want to go down that path, do we? Academic freedom is important and it's especially important to defend it when a professor is pushing a view that we disagree with.
It's one thing to defend academic freedom. Although Moran and Myers obviously do not agree with Hedin, they believe that Hedin is using his academic freedom appropriately. But they seem troubled not just that Hedin is in any danger of having his academic freedom curtailed, but that the public is taking an actual position on the conduct of an academic. We have to make a clear distinction between raising and deciding, and neither Moran nor Myers makes this distinction clear. The public must be able to raise an issue, so long as the university gets to decide the issue.

Academia does not, should not, and cannot exist in a complete vacuum, above and entirely unaffected by popular opinion. We have a complex and imperfect set of institutions designed to insulate academia from popular opinion and other powerful institutions, such as legislatures, executives, and businesses. However, this insulation cannot be absolute. The university has a social role, which must be negotiated with all members of society; the university does not and should not have social authority, immune from any criticism.


  1. Academic freedom is one topic, but what of an university's ethos and identity? The roman church for example demands the freedom to run catholic universities under catholic moral law free from interference from the state. So a lecturer can be dismissed for having an affair with a married person or for being a sexually active homosexual or in certain cases, for simply disagreeing with roman catholic dogma.

    Should an university have this much freedom to decide?

  2. Good question!

    The university in general benefits greatly from having a great deal of freedom for the professors. To be honest, I tend to side with Moran and Myers: Hedin should probably continue to teach his class his way. (I differ with M&M in that I think raising the question and having a discussion about the value of Hedin's course is appropriate and helpful.)

    On the other hand, the Catholic Church is a long-standing social and cultural institution. It has the economic and political power to establish Catholic universities on its own terms. I certainly would never even consider going to a Catholic university, even one that accepted atheists; I do not believe I would get a first class education. And I certainly do not like paying for Catholic anything, not directly, not by taxation, and not through tax credits. (Yes, I want churches to pay taxes.)


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