Christianity Kicked Out of Public Universities

Ball State University doesn’t want any more attention. It has been the subject of a nationwide campaign by pundits who were shocked—shocked!—to hear that one professor spoke kindly of intelligent design. But my current work in the archives at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College shows me just how dramatically things have changed in the past fifty years.

You may remember the intelligent-design case. In mid-2013, Eric Hedin was accused of larding his class with religious content. The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation complained, and eventually Ball State’s president announced that religious ideas must not be taught as part of science classes.

Hedin’s use of religious themes became objectionable for two reasons. Mainly, observers complained that he was presenting religious ideas as if they were scientific. But Ball State University was also criticized as a public school using taxpayer dollars to favor one religious group.

According to Jerry Coyne, when Ball State President Jo Ann M. Gora made her announcement that religious ideas should not be taught as science, she emphasized both of these notions. Intelligent design should not be taught as science, Gora told the Ball State community, since

Intelligent design is overwhelmingly deemed by the scientific community as a religious belief and not a scientific theory. Therefore, intelligent design is not appropriate content for science courses.

But Gora specified that even if such religious ideas were taught as part of humanities courses, they must only be taught as ideas, not as dogma. That is, even non-science classes could not teach religious ideas as true, but only as history or literature. As Gora put it,

Discussions of intelligent design and creation science can have their place at Ball State in humanities or social science courses. However, even in such contexts, faculty must avoid endorsing one point of view over others. . . . As a public university, we have a constitutional obligation to maintain a clear separation between church and state. It is imperative that even when religious ideas are appropriately taught in humanities and social science courses, they must be discussed in comparison to each other, with no endorsement of one perspective over another.

Things have changed. As I’ve dug through the archives here at the Billy Graham Center, I’ve come across an intriguing historical coda to the Eric Hedin story. These days, professors at Ball State may not teach religious ideas as science. They may not even teach any single religious idea as history or literature.

But as late as 1957, Ball State University—like many other public universities—taught evangelical Protestantism explicitly and purposefully. Many public colleges, especially teachers’ colleges, had entire programs devoted to what was usually called “Christian Education.” In these courses, public-school students could learn the basics of evangelical proselytization, usually under the heading of learning to be “Sunday School” teachers. Most typically, students were women who hoped to begin or enhance their careers as part-time religious educators.

The current logo hints at this heavenly history...

The current logo hints at this heavenly history…

In some cases, today’s public colleges used to be religious or denominational schools. That doesn’t seem to be the case with Ball State. It claims to have always been part of the government system.

Not only did universities such as Ball State teach courses in spreading the evangelical Gospel to children, but they also accepted transfer credits from unapologetically fundamentalist seminaries. In my archival work, I’ve found several examples of students using their credits from the Winona Lake School of Theology to advance their degrees at public universities like Ball State and the University of Georgia. Even the state of California apparently accepted Winona Lake credits toward public-school teaching certificates.

At the time, Winona Lake School of Theology was a firmly fundamentalist summer school. It was going through an ugly separation from the Fuller Theological Seminary over Fuller’s alleged drift away from Biblical inerrancy. Now defunct, the Winona Lake school refused to go along as Fuller Seminary moved into a more ecumenical attitude.

And in 1957, teachers could use their credits from this religious school to complete their religious program in Christian Education at Ball State University. Though there is too much heated rhetoric about God being “kicked out” of American public education, this example shows us how things really have changed over the past decades.

In 2013, the president of Ball State had no problem announcing that her university must not favor one religion over another; as a public school it must not teach religion, though it can and should teach about religion. But as late as 1957, Ball State and other public universities found it unexceptional to teach entire programs in Christian evangelism. Ball State had no problem taking credits from a fundamentalist seminary, since both programs taught similar course content.

More evidence that we are not just replaying every old culture-war script. Things really have changed.

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Eric Hedin and the Care and Feeding of Young Scientists

Scientists aren’t necessarily stupid.  Yet, as we’ve seen, some academic scientists demonstrate a curious ignorance or even proud self-delusion about important aspects of science and culture.

Perhaps the continuing kerfuffle over Professor Eric Hedin and Ball State University can shed some light on this puzzle.

The case began, it appears, with complaints by University of Chicago scientist and science activist Jerry Coyne.  Coyne complained that the teaching of Eric Hedin at Ball State University represented the indoctrination of students by a religious zealot. Professor Hedin taught a course cross-listed as “The Boundaries of Science” or “Inquiries in the Physical Sciences.”  True enough, Hedin’s reading list leaned heavily on old-earth creationism and intelligent design.  Worst of all, Professor Coyne argued, Hedin’s course proselytized for a specific sort of Christianity and called it science.  The university and department reluctantly agreed to investigate Hedin’s teaching.

Professor Coyne hoped the university would pressure Professor Hedin to stop his preaching.

Other leading science bloggers disagreed.  PZ Myers argued that Hedin’s teaching, though lamentable, must be allowed as an issue of academic freedom.  “If we’re going to start firing professors who teach things that are wrong,” Myers insisted, “we’re all going to be vulnerable.”

The debate between these science activists on the boundaries of acceptable university teaching might help us understand why so many scientists are so strangely unaware of the cultural context of their work.  Neither Professor Coyne nor Professor Myers seems to think that Professor’s Hedin course might actually be of value to the scientists-in-training at Ball State.  Myers defends the classes as a protection of Hedin’s rights, not the protection of student interests.

Is it not possible that such intellectual diversity could be a positive good?

In issues of race, the US Supreme Court has ruled that diversity is a legitimate goal of university admissions.  Racial diversity, in other words, is not only good for members of racial minority groups.  Diversity is good for everybody who wants to learn.

Does not the same principle apply here?

Of course, we would want to avoid the absurd extension of this principle.  We would not want to teach people things that were obviously not true only to give students some sort of intellectual workout.  But the ideas taught by Hedin are not the ravings of some isolated madman.  Rather, they represent an influential and important tradition in our culture.  Though these ideas do not qualify as representatives of mainstream science, they are nevertheless ideas about science.  Scientists should know about them.

Raising young scientists in an ideological or cultural hothouse produces fragile flowers.  It helps explain why so many smart people emerge from this training so remarkably dumb about important ideas.

If we looked into this question as one of encouraging intellectual diversity, we could shift the debate in useful ways.  Everyone can agree that students can benefit by being exposed to a diversity of ideas.  The question becomes, then, at what level and in what format should students learn about heterodox ideas?  What courses should count as requirements, and what courses should be elective?  Most important, where are the boundaries of acceptable diversity?  These are questions with which university faculties have long experience.

In my field, for instance, it would not make sense for introductory courses in American history to teach only a Marxist interpretation of the past.  Students from all sorts of fields take those introductory courses.  For many students, such a course may be their only collegiate exposure to American history.  It would not make sense for those students to learn that history is the unfolding of the class struggle.  But for history majors, students will benefit from having one or more advanced courses taught about specific interpretive traditions, whether or not the instructor is a Marxist.   Even though I do not think a Marxist interpretation is the best approach, I support the inclusion of such courses in university programs.  Not only to defend the teaching rights of professors, but more importantly, to ensure students experience a true diversity of intellectual approaches.

In the case from Ball State, it does not seem as if Professor Hedin’s religion-heavy course should be the ONLY exposure students have to science.  Nor should this course be taught as an introduction to science as a whole. But students who take a full course load of science classes could certainly benefit from considering such ideas.  Even if taught by an instructor who embraces the theological implications.  Other courses might study other aspects of science, and might usefully be taught by professors with strong intellectual commitments to a particular worldview.

Making the debate a question of when and how students encounter intellectual diversity is not as exciting as debating if religious ideas can be taught as science.  It is not as exciting as arguing whether professors have the academic freedom to teach heterodox ideas.  But it seems to me the most productive way to discuss Professor Hedin’s case.

 

 

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.