How Far Should the Creationist Purge Go?

Is a creationist historian worse than a socialist one? That’s the question science pundit Jerry Coyne is not asking. But he should be.

The 1941 report from the Guardians of American Education. Does Prof. Coyne really want to join this team?

The 1941 report from the Guardians of American Education. Does Prof. Coyne really want to join this team?

Like a lot of people, I’m a fan of Jerry Coyne. His tenacious attacks on all things religious are witty and smart. But in this case, his historical short-sightedness has caused him to blunder into dangerous terrain.

Here’s the story: In his continuing campaign against creationism, Coyne and his allies have singled out the creationist activism of Professor Emerson T. McMullen. McMullen teaches history classes at Georgia Southern University. Based on Coyne’s evidence, it does seem as if McMullen injects a good deal of proselytization into his classes.

McMullen teaches classes about the history of science and evolution. And, as one student noted in her evaluation, he gives extra credit if students attend religious films. As she warned, “most of it is trying to convert you, but hey, free points!”

Coyne and his allies in the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to the administration of Georgia Southern. They urged GSU to “investigate” McMullen’s teaching. They did not object to teaching about religious views, especially in a history class, but they did object to McMullen’s practice of pushing those views on students.

This presents us with a difficult question: How far do we want to go in purging creationists from college faculties? We agree that McMullen’s teaching seems to cross over into preaching. But there are a couple of ominous historical parallels that Professor Coyne seems to dismiss too breezily.

So, first, as Coyne and Co. acknowledge, there is no constitutional ban on teaching religion in publicly funded schools. As Justice Tom Clark made clear in his landmark 1963 opinion in the Schempp case,

Nothing we have said here indicates that such study of the Bible or of religion, when presented objectively as part of a secular program of education, may not be effected consistently with the First Amendment.

As Justice Clark specified, and as Professor Coyne acknowledged, the issue is not the teaching of religion, but the preaching of religion. As subsequent SCOTUS rulings have specified, public schools must not lend their imprimatur to religious preaching by either students or teachers. McMullen seems to be doing more than teaching about creationism. He appears to be using his authority as a teacher—dispensing grades and extra credit—to encourage students to repeat creationist-friendly ideas.

Does this mean we should actively “investigate” all such teaching? That universities have a constitutional duty to get rid of any professors or classes that move from teaching about religious ideas to preaching the ideas themselves? I think not, for two reasons.

First, university teaching is fundamentally different from K-12 teaching. The SCOTUS decisions about teaching and preaching have mostly dealt with younger students at public schools. Though Georgia Southern is a school that receives tax funding, its status as a university makes it a substantially different case from a high school, middle school, or elementary. The main issue in the Schempp verdict was that school prayer was something students could not evade. Such students were coerced, in effect, into listening to preaching. If, like the young Schempp himself, they have a pass to leave the classroom during prayers, they are still singled out by that action.  In contrast, students in college have enormous freedom to select classes. The faculties, in most cases, are much broader and more diverse. In most public high schools, students are assigned to a teacher without much input. In college, on the other hand, students put together their own schedules.

More important, Coyne doesn’t seem to grasp the tradition he would be joining if his McMullen campaign were successful, though Coyne nods to the importance of academic freedom. As I detail in my upcoming book, conservatives have conducted similar campaigns against leftist professors for decades. I doubt Professor Coyne wants to open up universities to allegations and investigations of ideologically suspicious professors.

In 1941, for example, a group of conservative leaders from the American Legion and the Advertising Federation of America teamed up to encourage Coyne-like investigations of college professors. Their main target was Professor Harold Rugg of Teachers College, Columbia University.

Should we guard the gate?

Should we guard the gate?

As the Guardians of American Education, they investigated Rugg’s teaching. They polled students and obtained copies of syllabi and course descriptions. One of Rugg’s courses, they alleged, featured what they called the “denial of certain natural and inalienable rights of man.” They gave specific examples of the way Rugg used his position as a professor to proselytize. On page 59 of Rugg’s syllabus for a course in Educational Foundations, for instance, Rugg pushed students to “admit the far too rottenness in our social, political, and financial life.”

Is this the sort of club Professor Coyne wants to join? In his earlier campaign against Eric Hedin at Ball State, Coyne alienated allies such as PZ Myers and Larry Moran. Both Moran and Myers thought that Coyne had gone too far in ignoring the sometimes-uncomfortable need to respect academic freedom. And that case was stronger than this one, since Hedin was teaching intelligent design as if it were mainstream science.

So, back to our main question: How far do we want to go to punish professors for their views? What should we do?

The purge is not the right approach. Instead, we should follow the model of Portland parents. When secular parents found out about preaching in an after-school club, they did not shut the club down. They couldn’t. The “Good News Club” had every constitutional right to do what it was doing. But the Portland parents realized that free speech and academic freedom cut both ways. They conducted a campaign to warn their fellow parents about the activities of the Good News Clubs.

That should be our model here. We do not want to slide into witch hunts and creationist-baiting. We do not want to encourage universities to investigate and purge faculty for their beliefs. Instead, we can let students at Georgia Southern know what goes on in McMullen’s classes. The publicity campaign should not be targeted at the administration of Georgia Southern, but rather at its students.

How far do we want to go in purging professors? In this case, Coyne goes too far.

Leave a comment


  1. While I agree that going into purges of professors is dangerous territory, I think there is something to be said for Dr. Coyne’s position based on sufficiency of curriculum. As he illustrated in his post that you linked, the professor in question is not adequately instructing the class on the Theory of Evolution. Perhaps there is a middle ground here, one which evaluates professors on the merits of what they are teaching rather than the views they personally hold.

  2. Steven Kranock

     /  October 30, 2014

    No one is talking about a “purge” except for Professor Laats. It is blatantly dishonest to imply that Coyne or Dawkins or the FFRF suggested anything like firing McMullen. They are not even calling for any of his classes to be canceled.

    Here is the relevant quote from the letter they sent to the president of Georgia Southern University:
    “We request that GSU thoroughly investigate all McMullen’s classes and his teaching/preaching methods. If your investigation bears out these allegations, we ask that you take appropriate corrective action, including ordering McMullen to cease and desist.”

    Laats owes Coyne an apology.

  3. Boko999

     /  November 3, 2014

    The prof is violating his students 1st Amendment rights.

  4. Pogo

     /  November 3, 2014

    Professor Laats needs to enter a four-step program:
    1. Learn how to read.
    2. Learn how to think.
    3. Learn how to write.
    4. Re-do this post.

    • Really? That’s it? These critics don’t give me any more confidence that Professor Coyne and his allies have a decent sense of the stakes involved here. Just as with constitutional rights to free speech and freedom of assembly, it is vital for all of us to protect academic freedom in higher education. Doing so does not imply agreement with the speaker or teacher. After all, I may defend the Ku Klux Klan’s right to hold a peaceful rally, though I find their organization despicable.
      There will likely be exceptions, but in this case from Georgia Southern, I’m not convinced that Prof. Coyne and the Freedom From Religion Foundation have adequately considered the possible blow-back from an ill-considered attack on academic freedom.
      Let me offer a few words from a different case. Scott Jaschik at Inside Higher Ed interviewed interested parties from similar situation a few years back. In that case, Kenneth Howell, an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois, wrote an offensive email to some students implying a moral condemnation of homosexuality, as part of a class on Catholicism. Howell was fired. That result satisfies my sense of justice, but it makes me nervous for the future of our academic freedom. Here is what some informants told Jaschik:

      Claire Potter, a historian at Wesleyan University, writes frequently on her blog Tenured Radical as a scholar and a lesbian about issues of bias. She has questioned the criticism of Howell. In a blog post about the controversy, she noted that she teaches material dealing with religion and sexuality — material that has the potential to offend some students — and said that some have complained about her using a similar phrase (“hate speech”) to one used by critics of Howell at Illinois.
      “Don’t get me wrong: the point of this post is not some narcissistic desire to demonstrate how super-tolerant I am of homophobic, right-wing theology,” Potter wrote. “My question is: do we think it is OK to do unto others as they would do unto us? Do we guarantee academic freedom for some people and not others? Most important, to avoid public controversy of all kinds, is higher ed simply going to give students permission to shut out things they find offensive as if they live in an entirely different country from the people they disagree with? Worse, should we not begin to talk about how students — in their teaching evaluations and in complaints to the administration — are now routinely urging that teachers be fired who do not provide suitable validation for their students’ view?”
      Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, agreed. He called Howell’s views “kooky and despicable, but I’m still inclined to protect his rights.”

      How is McMullen’s case different? Why shouldn’t we be defending his rights, even if we find his views kooky? Or despicable?

  5. So if a university finds out that one of its astronomy professors is teaching 15th century ideas about astronomy which have been known to be scientifically wrong for 400 years as if they constitute legitimate scientific thinking in the 21st century – well, hey, that’s perfectly fine since a university doesn’t have any responsibility to give its students a genuine education.

    Sounds pretty legit.

    • I think this argument misses the point. Folks like me and the AAUP do not want teachers to push religion on students. Not at all. But the Coyne/FFRF approach is scary for people who know their history. When we have a beef with the teaching in universities and colleges, we should not ask school administrations to carry out investigations, with an eye to disciplining intellectually wayward professors. As I suggested in the original post, we should make our case directly to students. Or, we could follow the model of Lehigh University. As you are likely aware, Lehigh’s faculty includes intelligent-design guru Michael Behe. Instead of asking the school administration to investigate or discipline Behe for his heterodoxy, we can post a warning on websites, like the one on Lehigh’s Biology Department page. That statement reads as follows:

      The faculty in the Department of Biological Sciences is committed to the highest standards of scientific integrity and academic function. This commitment carries with it unwavering support for academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. It also demands the utmost respect for the scientific method, integrity in the conduct of research, and recognition that the validity of any scientific model comes only as a result of rational hypothesis testing, sound experimentation, and findings that can be replicated by others.

      The department faculty, then, are unequivocal in their support of evolutionary theory, which has its roots in the seminal work of Charles Darwin and has been supported by findings accumulated over 140 years. The sole dissenter from this position, Prof. Michael Behe, is a well-known proponent of “intelligent design.” While we respect Prof. Behe’s right to express his views, they are his alone and are in no way endorsed by the department. It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific.

      Mr. Greene suggests that we should not tolerate out-of-date teaching. Maybe not. But asking school administrations to investigate and discipline faculty is a dangerous road to go down. Instead, we should appeal to the faculty and students.

      • Just to point this out…

        No, I’m not missing the point. What I pointed out is that you missed the point. I’m quite aware of the dangers of employing political correctness to impose some kind of ideological orthodoxy on teachers – and I completely agree with you about that.

        What I’m pointing out is that there certainly are other lines that teachers can cross for which they should be confronted, and then relieved of their duties if they can’t bring themselves to stop. This is not Behe, this is McMullen, and McMullen is way over the line – and it is not scary to hold teachers accountable to academic standards.

        Young earth creationism isn’t scientific, has nothing to do with science, and is indeed a virulent form religion-motivated anti-science. What McMullen is doing isn’t edgy, or even merely somewhat controversial, or anything like that. He is




        What Coyne and FFRF have done is exactly what should be done.

      • Well put, and I think we’re mostly in agreement. I think our disagreement comes down to two points: 1.) To whom should we appeal if we dislike the teaching of university professors? The public? The students? The faculty? …or the administration? I still think the appeal to the administration is wrong-headed and short-sighted. And 2.) What are we outraged by? Prof. McMullen’s bad science? Or his method of pushing students to state religious ideas as part of his class? You are emphasizing the bad science, which, with apologies, I really do think misses the point. You’ll get no argument from me that McMullen’s views are bad science. But the objectionable thing is not his bad thinking, it is his bad teaching–substituting preaching for teaching. Academic departments must guard against bad teaching, but it crosses a dangerous line to guard against bad thinking.

  6. Pogo

     /  November 4, 2014

    Let me make this simple for you.
    1. I am a resident of the state of Georgia.
    2. I pay Georgia income taxes
    3. My tax dollars are used to fund the Board of Regents
    4. The Board of Regents pays Professor McMullen’s salary.
    5. Professor McMullen uses tax dollars to preach* in class.
    6. My tax dollars are therefore being used to advocate for a religious view.

    In essence this is no different from using my tax dollars to pay the expenses of missionaries or church rent. It is not a matter of academic freedom, it is a matter of a state-supported religious view.

    * I believe you used the term “proselytization” above. As I said in my earlier comment: “Learn to read, learn to think. . .” I rest my case.

    • I don’t want to engage in a shouting match. But I do want to clarify to other readers that I am NOT accusing Prof. Coyne or the Freedom From Religion Foundation of the sort of simplistic, ignorant boorishness displayed by Pogo’s comments. First of all, the FFRF is keenly aware that McMullen’s case does include issues of academic freedom. As they put it in their original letter to Georgia Southern, “We fully understand and support the need for academic freedom and free inquiry, particularly in universities.” In this case, they are arguing that the threat of religious teaching outweighs concerns about academic freedom. Second, my hunch is that Prof. Coyne knows that tax dollars make up only a small part of Prof. McMullen’s salary. Third, and most important, I think Prof. Coyne and the FFRF are keenly aware of the fact that our tax dollars are used all the time to support religion. Perhaps the most significant example is the tax-exempt status of most churches. When I pay my taxes, I’m supporting all the religious groups who benefit from public services, even if they don’t pay taxes themselves. I don’t agree with Prof. Coyne’s approach to McMullen’s teaching, but I don’t think Coyne would ever make Pogo’s sort of ill-informed comment. Prof. Coyne is aware of the complexities of these sorts of cases, even if he is less careful than he should be about calling for administrative investigations of university teaching.

  7. Pogo

     /  November 5, 2014

    There is just the least bit of difference between supporting religion via a tax exemption available to all qualifying entities and paying the salary of a proselytizer. One is constitutional, one is not.

    I can’t address Professor Coyne’s hunch, if any, about tax funds as a part of Professor McMullen’s salary. If one were inclined to deal in facts rather than assumptions one would discover quickly that tax funds make up a significant part of Professor McMullen’s salary. in SFY 2013 the total instructional budget for the Georgia Board of Regents was $5..648 billion, of which $1.603 billion was state funds. State funds account for 28.38% of Professor McMullen’s salary of $54,835, or $15,500 per year. When you add in the overhead for Board of Regent’s employees, which is ~38% after the recent increase in state contributions to the pension fund, the total state funds supporting Professor McMullen’s position exceed $28,750. Please note that this calculation significantly understates the taxpayer support for Professor McMullen, since federal funds are lumped into the ‘other funds’ category.

    To put it in another perspective: the total state budget is $17.003 billion. The board of regents instructional budget is 9.5% of that. Which means that 9.5% of my state tax payments go to the pot from which Professor Mc Mullen is paid.

    I hope you find these facts neither ignorant nor boorish. If you do, perhaps you should add “Learn to research” to the pending task list above.

  8. Pogo

     /  November 6, 2014

    What a surprise – Professor Laats abandons the discussion when facts which conflict with his biases are introduced.

    However, for the record I’d like to state that his argument re tax dollars making up a small portion of Professor McMullen’s salary is the equivalent of arguing that those of us who are concerned about state surveillance should quit complaining because 90% of our first amendment rights haven’t been violated. The simple, one-word description for this position, as enunciated by the late, great Tom Magliozzi: “Bogus!”

  1. Firing Creationist Scientists | I Love You but You're Going to Hell

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