There is a very disturbing affair going on at Ball State University that everyone needs to know about. The public university in Muncie, Indiana, has been under pressure from a rabid national atheist group and from atheist activist Jerry Coyne to discipline an assistant physics professor for teaching about intelligent design. Coyne and the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) claim it’s a legal, constitutional matter, no less: teaching about ID violates the First Amendment! "It’s religion taught as science in a public university, and it’s not only wrong but illegal," writes Coyne. "This will now go to the lawyers."
Ball State has announced it will indeed scrutinize the situation. FFRF staff attorney Andrew L. Seidel complained in a legally vacuous letter to Ball State president Jo Ann Gora. Amazingly, the university responded with this ominous public statement:
The university received a complaint from a third party late yesterday afternoon about content in a specific course offered at Ball State. We take academic rigor and academic integrity very seriously. Having just received these concerns, it is impossible to comment on them at this point. We will explore in depth the issues and concerns raised and take the appropriate actions through our established processes and procedures.
Being the subject of such controversy, with your employer issuing public statements about how higher ups will be "explor[ing] concerns" about your "academic rigor" and "integrity," is obviously the last thing an academic in Eric Hedin’s shoes wants. It’s enough to make the blood drain from your face.
The only good news at this point is that Dr. Hedin’s immediate supervisor, the chairman of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, seems to be backing him up. Quoted in a news article about the push to silence Hedin, reported by Inside Higher Ed, Thomas Robertson politely dismissed Coyne’s complaint:
The information provided to me by Jerry Coyne contains nothing in addition to information that has been in my possession for some time. The syllabus published was approved by our department Curriculum and Assessment Committee. We review faculty performance regularly through student and peer/chair evaluations. I receive complaints and concerns from students familiar with faculty performance in their classes and investigate when appropriate. Given the totality of information available to me at this time, I do not share the opinions expressed on the web sites cited below. We will continue to monitor our faculty and their course materials and practices and take appropriate action when deemed necessary.
Coyne makes much of the fact that since 2005, exactly three students reviewing Eric Hedin’s classes at Rate My Professors have complained about his favorable comments on religion. Otherwise, Hedin is evidently a very well liked and respected instructor, including by the three who didn’t care for his remarks on religious topics — whatever, in fact, those amounted to. It would be interesting to know what Coyne’s students at the University of Chicago think of him. To date nobody has even bothered to rate him on the website.
The course that Hedin has taught looks substantive and intriguing. It’s called "The Boundaries of Science" and it seeks to probe arguments and evidence that reality may extend beyond the limits set by rigid naturalism. Hedin teaches about cosmology and the Big Bang, cosmic fine-tuning, the enigma of life’s origin, theistic evolution, the limits of science, and most provocatively: "Beauty, complex specified information, and intelligent design: what the universe communications about God."
So it’s clearly not unfriendly to faith. But the bibliography diverse and challenging, including ID theorists like Stephen Meyer and William Dembski, some fairly heavy-duty science, and other authors from a variety of philosophical and religious perspectives — Christian, Jewish, atheist, deist, and agnostic. Admittedly there are no crusading religion-haters on the syllabus � la Jerry Coyne or the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
And that’s exactly what the FFRP is. The group should not be confused with a more familiar civil-liberties organization like the ACLU. Distinctly on the far fringe, FFRP campaigns for erasing "In God We Trust" from American currency, against the National Day of Prayer, for limiting favorable tax treatment for churches. The issue here isn’t science or maintaining a proper constitutional separation between church and state. FFRP is all about seeking any pretext to confine faith to an ever-narrower place in American life.
Very candid in its animus, FFRP pushes a "DeBaptismal Certificate" for ex-Christians and publishes books and tracts with titles like Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher to Atheist and Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children, explaining to kids ages 6-12 why belief in God may be compared to believing in Santa Claus.
The group is also responsible for some hard-edged billboards you may have seen including:
- Yes Virginia…There Is No God [with a cartoon of Santa Claus]
- Heathen’s Greetings
- Sleep In on Sundays
- Enjoy Life Now. There Is No Afterlife
- "The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in fiction." [with a photo of Richard Dawkins, whose memorable comment that is]
- Praise Darwin: Evolve Beyond Belief
Why Ball State University, which answers to Indiana taxpayers by way of the governor and state legislature, should feel compelled to respond at all to this extreme and intolerant organization — headquartered in Madison, Wisconsin and claiming just 300 members in Indiana — is a baffling question.
Another question is why a presumably smart man like Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist in name though more of an anti-religion tub-thumper in reality, imagines that there is a First Amendment problem in Hedin’s classroom. The Constitution protects free expression, remember? No one is being compelled to take his class. Even Coyne’s fellow atheist bloggers PZ Myers and Laurence Moran are troubled by the implication that it’s appropriate to try to strike with the weapon of the law at a professor at another university whose views you don’t like.
Moran, a biochemist at the University of Toronto, has been surprisingly good on this. As he notes, there’s something really offensively weasel-like about going after Eric Hedin by complaining to his employer. You want to criticize Dr. Hedin’s ideas on your blog or in some other appropriate medium? Sure, definitely. Go for it. But try to get him punished or reigned in by his supervisors? That’s contemptible. Writes Moran, "I ban people from Sandwalk [his blog] if I ever hear of them trying to intimidate someone by complaining to their employer. That’s unacceptable behavior in my book."
Intimidation is exactly what’s going. Beyond the case of Eric Hedin, this business at Ball State illustrates a much wider phenomenon. It’s what we’ve long said about the academic "consensus" against intelligent design. The seeming agreement among many scholars that forbids even mild criticism of Darwinism, and automatically invalidates even strictly scientific alternatives to the theory, is the product of a culture of sclerotic orthodoxy in some academic quarters.
On Darwinian evolution, younger scholars rightly fear airing heterodox views. The "consensus" is maintained by intellectual intimidation. Up until now, though, the enforcement mechanism has been "only" personal and professional, relying on anxiety about career and status. That’s bad enough — a poison in the world of scholarship. In a novel development, to suppress dissent, Coyne and his atheist confederates want to introduce the police power of the courts. And they are getting a respectful hearing from the administration of a large public university! That takes a worrying state of affairs and makes it considerably, urgently worse.