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Astronomer Denied Job at University of Kentucky Due to Perceived Sympathy for “Creationism”

Martin Gaskell is an astronomer who is originally from the United Kingdom. He came to the U.S. in 1975 and later received his M.S. and Ph.D. at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He’s not a creationist. As we’ll see below, he’s generally a theistic evolutionist, who has at times expressed minor criticisms of some aspects of evolution (he accepts common ancestry) and an openness to the possibility of intelligent design.

In 2007, Gaskell was on the faculty at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where he taught in the Department of Physics and Astronomy. At that time, he applied for a job at the University of Kentucky (UK), hoping to serve as the founding director of a newly planned observatory. But the UK didn’t hire Gaskell. Instead they hired Timothy Knauer, who was considerably less experienced. Why? The hiring search committee at UK confused intelligent design (ID) with theistic evolution, and both with creationism, ending up with Gaskell filing a religious discrimination lawsuit against UK. His case shows that if academia merely thinks you’re an ID-sympathizer — regardless of whether you actually are — then you’re a “creationist” who should have no role in public outreach at the university. Here’s how Gaskell’s case panned out.

Because UK rejected Gaskell’s application on the basis of what they perceived to be his “creationist” views, Gaskell has filed a lawsuit against UK alleging religious discrimination. Gaskell is represented by the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ). Evidence revealed in a court order filed by a federal district court in Kentucky on November 23, 2010, shows that “[t]here is no dispute that based on his application, Gaskell was a leading candidate for the position.” One scientist who oversaw a search committee at UK to hire the best applicant wrote to the search committee that “Martin Gaskell is clearly the most experienced” of the applicants. (p. 5) The court thus found that UK “concedes that Gaskell had more education and experience.” (p. 1)

According to the court, UK rejected Gaskell’s application because the university believed he was a “creationist” and couldn’t tolerate having such a person in a position that would involve public outreach. The court wrote:

The Search Committee also became aware of Gaskell’s public statements on the scientific theory of evolution. In 1997, Gaskell had been invited to deliver a talk at UK on Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation. There is no transcript or recording of Gaskell’s lecture; however, Gaskell maintained his lecture notes from the talk. The parties greatly debate exactly what Gaskell personally believes regarding the theory of evolution and the Bible. Although he did not attend the lecture, Moshe Elitzur, an astronomer in the UK Physics and Astronomy Department, informed Cavagnero that one of his colleagues who attended, Gary Ferland, had commented that Gaskell was a “creationist” and did not hide his beliefs. Elitzur was concerned about hiring someone in a position with significant public outreach who was a creationist. (pp. 7-8)

The court notes, however, that “Gaskell denies that he is a ‘creationist.'” (p. 8) Before evaluating the extensive evidence of discrimination against Gaskell that is revealed in the court’s order, it’s important to understand further what Gaskell himself actually believes about origins. Below we will see that based upon Gaskell’s stated views, he’s in fact not a creationist, although he has expressed doubts about neo-Darwinian evolution and the chemical origins of life.

What Are Martin Gaskell’s Actual Views on Evolution, Intelligent Design, and Creationism?
The search committee learned about Gaskell’s views on origins by reading his online notes from a talk he had given, Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation. From reading those notes, it becomes clear that Gaskell is definitely not a “creationist” in the young earth sense. In fact, as will be seen below, it’s not clear that he’s a creationist in any standard sense. His view is probably closest to a theistic evolution position, with some skepticism of biological and chemical evolution, and a willingness to take seriously the possibility of intelligent design (ID).

Gaskell’s presentation reviews various viewpoints on origins, noting that there are many possible viewpoints that Christians can hold. He expresses clear disagreement with young earth creationism, but also notes that “there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory” and that “these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses”:

The main controversy has been between people at the two extremes (young earth creationists and humanistic evolutionists). “Creationists” attack the science of “evolutionists”. I believe that this sort of attack is very bad both scientifically and theologically. The “scientific” explanations offered by “creationists” are mostly very poor science and I believe this sort of thing actually hinders some (many?) scientists becoming Christians. It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses…

While Gaskell does not specifically identify with the ID position, he notes that it is a position that ought to be taken seriously as a criticism of evolution, and in fact recommends the writings of Phillip Johnson and Michael Behe:

While discussing controversies and interpretations of Genesis I should mention something that has been much debated in recent years but is not an interpretation of Genesis: what is called “Intelligent Design”. This movement, which is often erroneously confused with young-earth creationism, is just exploring the question of what evidence there is in the universe for design by an intelligence. This is really a general, non-religious question (although with obvious religious implications), and there is no opinion on the interpretation of Genesis. … [I]t should be realized that, despite some popular claims to the contrary, science has no satisfactory explanation of the origins of life yet. Note that the question of the origin of life is a separate problem from the question of the validity of some theories of evolution. The evidence is very good (and gets stronger every year) that all life on earth descended (i.e. , evolved from) from a common origin. There is still a problem of the ultimate origin of life. A discussion of the current controversies over evolutionary theory and how Christians view these controversies, is beyond the scope of this handout, but the now extensive literature discussing and reviewing books such as those of Phillip E. Johnson (“Darwin on Trial”) and of biochemist Michael J. Behe (“Darwin’s Black Box”) will give you some of the flavor of the diversity of opinion of Christian biologists (and geologists).

Gaskell continues: “This is probably a good place to state that I personally have no theological problem with the idea of God doing things in the ways described in modern theories of evolution (i.e. , ‘theistic evolution’).”

It appears that the position closest to that held by Dr. Gaskell is a non-dogmatic theistic evolution position that is seriously open to the possibility of intelligent design and also recognizes scientific problems with biological and chemical evolution.

But Gaskell’s true views here really aren’t important. What matters is what the UK search committee thought that Gaskell believed, and how they acted upon it. We already know that, for whatever reason, UK believed Gaskell was a “creationist.” And as we’ll see in the next post, they denied him the job on that basis.

Apparently, it was Gaskell’s willingness to take ID seriously and his recognition that there are problems with evolutionary biology and the origins of life that were too much for the search committee at UK. In their view, unless Gaskell fully toed the line on materialist explanations of life, he was a “creationist,” and as will be seen in the next post, they believed he therefore did not deserve the job at UK.