Can a Public University Teach Religion as Science?

Jerry Coyne says no.  The prominent scientist and atheist brought our attention yesterday to a course being taught at Ball State University.  This course, Coyne complains, pretends to teach science, but fills students’ heads with religious notions.

Professor Coyne makes a strong case.  But it just doesn’t hold water.

Coyne insists such a course would be acceptable at a public university if it focused on the history of science and religion, or the relationship between science and religion.  But Coyne’s beef is with the fact that the course is being taught as a science course, for science credit.

Coyne demonstrates convincingly that the course is indeed infused with religious thought.

The professor, Eric Hedin, has often introduced his Christian faith into his teaching, at least according to some “Rate my professor” quotations that Coyne cites.

The reading list includes books by intelligent-design thinkers Stephen Meyer and Michael Behe.  It also asks students to read the religious/scientific work of Francis Collins and old-earth creationist Hugh Ross.  As Coyne argues, it does not include any of the leading works from the other side of this continuing controversy.

As Coyne wrote to the chair of the Ball State Physics Department,

As as [sic] scientist, I find this deeply disturbing. It’s not only religion served under the guise of science, but appears to violate the First Amendement [sic] of the Constitution. You are a public university and therefore cannot teach religion in a science class, as this class appears to do.  Clearly, Dr. Hedin is religious and foisting this on his students, and I have seen complaints about students being short-change[d] [‘d’ added in original] by being fed religion in a science course.

Coyne’s got it wrong.  First of all, a university is not the same as a K-12 public school.  Students are not forced to take this class.  This is one course from a galaxy of courses available to Ball State students.  Plus, the public funding of a public university is far different than that of K-12 schools.  According to Ball State, in 2011 the state paid for under half of operating expenses—just over $5,500 out of a total cost of $13,579 per student.

Second, and more important, a good university—public, private, whatever—should expose its students to a variety of ideas, presented by both believers and skeptics.  The University of Colorado at Boulder, for instance, attracted a good deal of attention lately for hiring Steven Hayward to fill its visiting chair in Conservative Thought and Policy.  The university’s goal was precisely to introduce a richer diversity of ideas on its campus.

In Colorado, the university and state went to considerable expense to encourage this sort of intellectual variety.  Ball State students are getting this sort of university exposure to new ideas and perspectives in-house.

Professor Coyne objects that this course is being taught as science.  And his objection has merit.  The definition of science, after all, has been a key issue in the legal battles over the teaching of creationism in public schools.

However, in order for scientists and students of science to be truly educated, they must be exposed to a true diversity of ideas.  Professor Hedin teaching his courses as part of a Ball State education is a very different thing than a religious group taking over a public education system.  Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere, scientists’ ignorance about creationism encourages more radical creationism.  If we want to reduce creationism’s cultural impact, we should help scientists learn more about its foundational ideas, not less.

Hedin is offering students a different way to see the world.  That kind of course should be part of every university education, in whatever department it falls.


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