Friday, October 14, 2011

God and Truth at Erskine College

Last month, Peter Wood and Ashley Thorne of the National Association of Scholars wrote an article of extraordinary ambivalence, refusing to criticize Erskine College for firing of Bill Crenshaw because of his outspoken defense of science.

Wood and Thorne write about my earlier criticism of Erskine's firing, “Wilson’s characterization of what happened at Erskine is off the mark. He is vilifying Erskine simply for offering faith-based education. This is not a case of a conservative college repressing a pro-science professor. It is a Christian college attempting to adhere to its own clear values as it struggles with the case of a professor who plainly rejects those values—and apparently carries his dissent to the point of dissuading potential applicants and donors.”

This is absolutely false. This is a case of a conservative college repressing a pro-science professor.

Wood and Thorne are even unwilling to criticize the obvious abuse of the term “harm” in the Erskine faculty handbook used by the administration to justify Crenshaw's firing. Wood and Thorne argue, “Encouraging people not to donate to or enroll at Erskine certainly counts as “harm” to a college. Whether this is the kind of 'harm' originally contemplated in the now obsolete handbook is a rather lawyerly question. The AAUP says no; Erskine College says (via a spokesman to Inside Higher Ed) that there are harms beyond the merely physical that warrant administrative intervention.”

It is notable that Crenshaw declares, “I did not tell anyone to quit donating and I did not tell any parent not to send children to Erskine,” and no evidence has been presented proving he did this. But even if he did, it seems perfectly obvious that “harm to himself or others” in the handbook refers strictly to physical harm. If harm beyond the “merely physical” can now justify firing a professor, then it's hard to imagine anything that could not qualify. A student who receives a bad grade suffers a “harm” from it. A professor who criticizes the administration can be said to “harm” it. A discussion on campus that offends someone can be deemed to “harm” them emotionally. And anyone on campus who says something controversial can be accused of “harm” to college fundraising. This may be a “lawyerly question” in the sense that a lawyer for the college can invent rationalizations that are plainly contrary to any common sense meaning, but why is the NAS embracing the administration's side in firing critical faculty?

Ashley Thorne writes on Phi Beta Cons, “The AAUP and others take it as a given that religious faith is incompatible with scientific inquiry. Peter and I disagree.” This is absurd. Of course religious faith can be compatible with scientific inquiry. Plenty of scientists are religious. But they understand that scientific reality cannot be ignored simply because particularly ignorant fundamentalists imagine that not one iota of their vision of religious dogma must never be challenged. Young earth creationism cannot be defended by any scientific analysis, but that scientific fact is only incompatible with a particularly crazed interpretation of Christianity. It is bizarre to imagine that the essence of Christian faith is the false belief that the Earth was created 10,000 years ago. That's why devoutly religious colleges can and should employ scientists.

It's actually Thorne and Wood who argue that religious faith cannot be compatible with scientific inquiry, and therefore religious dogma justifies the expulsion from religious colleges of those who believe in science.

Now, it is a separate issue as to whether religious colleges should employ people who reject their faith. As an atheist, I'm appalled that hundreds of conservative religious colleges ban me from being hired, while I'm not aware of a single university in America that excludes fundamentalist Christians. I think that a truly religious college is a place where faith is the center of the conversation, not a place where everyone agrees with a particular religious dogma. Therefore, I believe that religious colleges should welcome atheists and encourage religious dissenters who challenge the faith of their students.

However, that argument has nothing to do with the Crenshaw case, because science is perfectly compatible with religious faith. Wood and Thorne argue, “The harsh antipathy between faith and science conjured in some of Professor Crenshaw’s statements is mostly if not entirely a secularist illusion.” Apparently the belief that Crenshaw was fired is a secularist illusion. But as Crenshaw noted in my interview with him, “I do not think, and have never said, that religious faith and scientific inquiry are incompatible.”

Wood and Thorne argue that “the doctrine of academic freedom be conceived as sufficiently capacious to allow room for minds that are open to religious truth.” That's a great idea, and I agree with it. So shouldn't academic freedom allow room for Crenshaw's mind to believe in a religious truth that also allows for scientific truth?

Ironically, Wood and Thorne blame their failure to defend academic freedom in the Crenshaw case on the AAUP: “The AAUP’s 1940 statement, however, was purposely vague. Far from settling the question of how religious colleges can or should protect academic freedom, it set up an ambiguity that has repeatedly led to confrontations.”

That assessment of the 1940 Statement is true. And that's why the AAUP and the American Association of Colleges in 1970 adopted a series of Interpretive Comments, among which was this: “Most church-related institutions no longer need or desire the departure from the principle of academic freedom implied in the 1940 Statement, and we do not now endorse such a departure.”

Everything in the 1970 Interpretive Comments is fully part of the AAUP's fundamental principles (indeed, it's more important than the 1940 Statement because the 1970 Comments supercede the 1940 Statement at any points where they conflict).

There is no ambiguity in the AAUP's 1970 Comments. They clearly state that religious colleges should follow the same principles of academic freedom as secular colleges.

But Wood and Thorne reject this universal idea of academic freedom, preferring to carve out a far more restricted concept for professors at religious colleges: “We should be able to conceive of ideals of academic freedom that can thrive in the setting of creedal communities. If not, the doctrine of academic freedom itself is exposed as a conceit too weak to match the actual circumstances of higher learning.” The fault, dear NAS, lies in yourselves, not in the doctrine of academic freedom. Academic freedom is a conceit strong enough for everyone, except when some people refuse to apply it to actual violations of intellectual liberty.

I can find no other instance where the NAS ever blamed the victim of an attack on academic freedom, as they do when they attack “Crenshaw for his destructive antagonism towards the college.” The NAS has defended plenty of professors who criticize the administration of their colleges. Wood and Thorne are embracing a double standard, refusing to acknowledge repression when it is aimed at a controversial “liberal” professor who supports science.

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