Discrimination?

We will take a brief break from consideration of Denis O. Lamoureux’s book Evolutionary Creation returning to Ch 5 next week.

A couple of people forwarded an article to me – published in a number of papers last Friday: Scientist Alleges Religious Discrimination. Just a teaser here – read the whole article by following the link to the Washington Post site.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — An astronomer argues that his Christian faith and his peers’ belief that he is an evolution skeptic kept him from getting a prestigious job as the director of a new student observatory at the University of Kentucky.

Martin Gaskell quickly rose to the top of a list of applicants being considered by the university’s search committee. One member said he was “breathtakingly above the other applicants.”

Others openly worried his Christian faith could conflict with his duties as a scientist, calling him “something close to a creationist” and “potentially evangelical.”

This is quite the article – and opens up some interesting questions for conversation. Another article on the subject was published in the New York Times on Saturday (Astronomer Sues University of Kentucky).

What goes through your mind when you read an article like this?

I don’t know any of the details about the situation at the University of Kentucky beyond the articles linked above and I don’t know Dr. Gaskell.  I generally hold a level of skepticism or at least agnosticism with such news articles until additional information becomes available. There may be facts not apparent in this short report. However, the story is plausible – while such expressions toward evangelical faith are not everyday occurrences, they certainly occur. From the article it appears that the problem with Dr. Gaskell is not so much his faith – but that he was open and on record about his faith, made some comments that could raise questions. He was judged by some as guilty by assumption and association – despite the fact that he affirms both an old earth and evolutionary biology:

Gaskell said he is not a “creationist” and his views on evolution are in line with other biological scientists. In his lecture notes, Gaskell also distances himself from Christians who believe the earth is a few thousand years old, saying their assertions are based on “mostly very poor science.”

His attorney, Frank Manion, is quoted as saying:

“Unfortunately too many people get hung up on the idea that you have to be one extreme or the other,” …  They say “you can’t be a religious believer and somebody who accepts evolution, which is clearly not true. And Gaskell’s a perfect example of that.”

This is an interesting case. There were probably at least a couple of Christians who were involved in the search process at some level – yet other faculty members felt comfortable using derogatory terms responding to a perceived threat without fear of opposition and without realization that most Christians in the sciences are convinced of the reliability of both mainstream science (without the atheistic and purely materialistic trappings) and the truth of the gospel.

The story also illustrates the power of internet archives – and the influence this has on the availability of formerly obscure information and details about people. From the NY Times story:

For the plaintiff, the smoking gun is an e-mail dated Sept. 21, 2007, from a department staff member, Sally A. Shafer, to Dr. Cavagnero and another colleague. Ms. Shafer wrote that she did an Internet search on Dr. Gaskell and found links to his notes for a lecture that explores, among other topics, how the Bible could relate to contemporary astronomy.

The conflict started, apparently, when references to a lecture reconciling science and faith given a decade earlier was unearthed in a routine web search. The interface between science an faith is no longer a topic on which it is safe to speculate or think in public – a tentative suggestion a decade ago can become enshrined as personal position today.

A code of silence. Part of the problem highlighted with Dr. Gaskell’s case is not discrimination against Christian faith – but the complete breakdown we have in dialog on issues of science and the Christian faith.   The situation at the University of Kentucky can be put into context if we look at something of the culture in the secular academy. I wrote a series of posts this last spring on Elaine Ecklund’s book Science vs Religion (you can find the links in the science archive on the sidebar). In her survey (~1700 scientists) and interviews (275 scientists)  of scientists at ‘elite’ universities Ecklund found that  very few identify as evangelical (2%) – although a somewhat larger percentage practice what we would consider an evangelical faith. The label “evangelical” carries baggage that many are unwilling to embrace.  Many of these scientists keep a low profile on all fronts, practicing what Ecklund calls a closeted faith. She also notes that Universities tend to have what sociologists refer to as a strong culture. In this culture religion is not an acceptable topic of discussion, except, perhaps, in an abstract academic fashion; or often as a subject of ridicule, humor, and/or frustration.

One characteristic of this strong culture is that it is generally considered better not to discuss religion than to discuss it. When religion unavoidably comes up, such as when discussing news events, the conversation ends abruptly. Or everyone – religious and nonreligious alike – tacitly agrees that religion is generally negative and has a negative relationship to science, or at least that the subject is delicate and best avoided. The hallmark of a strong culture is that there is widespread agreement about certain issues – in this case, the issue of suppressing religion – even in the context of individual dissent. Most relevant here, strong departmental cultures related to religion made religious scientists feel as if they could not talk openly about being religious because they might face negative sanctions from their colleagues. When religious individuals participated in and upheld the strong culture surrounding religion in their particular departments, they perpetuated a closeted faith. (p. 44)

To take a public stand, to go on record as a Christian, is to align oneself, perhaps irrevocably, with the outspoken extreme.  One’s actual position on the issues of relevance, such as science and evolution, is secondary.

A code of silence within the church too. Of course strong cultures are not limited to Universities and academic departments in the sciences and social sciences. Churches can also be strong cultures – where it is inappropriate to speak about the interface of science and faith or the questions raised by science and ancient Near East and biblical studies about aspects of our received expression of the faith. As there is a tacit assumption of secularism within the university, there is within large swaths of our church, a tacit assumption of anti-evolutionism and rejection of scholarship. The strong culture demanding silence on religious issues within the academy is coupled with a strong culture demanding silence on scientific issues within the church. Those who practice a closeted faith within the academy turn around and practice a closeted scholarship within the church.

The scientists with a faith tradition whom I interviewed often displayed … an identity that is many-sided and fluid. … Religious scientists often feel embattled, both in their scientific and religious communities. At work, they might experience subtle discrimination. At church, if they were to express all facets of their identities as scientists, they might face misunderstanding and rejection, especially within religious communities that sometimes question (or outright reject) the theory of evolution. (p. 47)

This can, to put it mildly, make life difficult and leaves a question about how to move forward and break the stalemate. There is no quick and easy solution.

What do you think of the situation at the University of Kentucky? Is this surprising or only to be expected?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

If you have comments please visit Discrimination? at Jesus Creed

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