Academic freedom and creationists are both at risk these days on secular campuses where new academic witch hunts are underway.

A fair number of science professors at state universities,  sympathetic to a non-evolutionary theories of origins, are being vilified, brow-beaten, ostracized or even dismissed for their “unorthodox” views leaking into the classroom. Calls for their dismissal from the faculty or removal from their courses abound from secular scientists whose own religiously deep commitments to evolutionary theory and naturalistic materialism will tolerate no divergent opinions. For them, scientific orthodoxy is at stake. Their opponents are the new academic heretics.

Quite apart from the supposed conflicts of church and state–which have always been overstated by secularists and undersupported by the U.S. Constitution (all “separationist” language is found outside the constitution, not in it, for example*)–this issue has become a deep and important test of  academic freedom at secular universities.  If the new generation of evolutionary zealots win, can academic freedom–in any meaningful sense–survive? I think not.

The most recent example of this risk to academic freedom comes from Ball State University in Indiana. According to an article by Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed,

“Ball State University has agreed to investigate complaints that a course taught by a physics and astronomy professor has crossed a line from being about science to being about Christianity.

“Science blogs have been discussing the course for a few weeks now (although the professor who teaches the class, who did not respond to requests for comment, hasn’t weighed in publicly). Ball State did not issue a statement until Thursday night, after it received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation charging that the course — ‘The Boundaries of Science” — is being used “to proselytize students and advance Christianity.’

“The letter states that the course’s description makes it seem ‘to be an honest objective investigation regarding the intersection of science and religion.’ But the letter notes that the syllabus and reading list includes creationists and ‘Christian apologists who lack any scientific credentials whatsoever,’ while leading proponents of the idea that evolution is true (embraced by a wide scientific consensus) are not represented.

The foundation says that the syllabus is full of ‘ID-speak,’ language promoting the ideas of intelligent design, a theory discredited by leading scientists as a tool to try to undercut the teaching of evolution. The letter states that there is nothing wrong with teaching about religion at a public university, but argues that the course crosses a line into endorsing a religious view — which the letter says is inappropriate for a science course or for a public university.

“Ball State needs to investigate the issues involved and assure a separation of church and state, and the upholding of academic standards, the letter says.”

Ironically, it is secular scientists, not creationists,  who have been demanding an inflexible test of orthodoxy on “received” views of science. Arguments are not raised to refute ideas contrary to the received dogma. Instead, they simply invoke their  secular authorities (argumentum ad verecundiam)–“leading proponents,” “wide scientific consensus,” etc., as if truth in science rested on majority rule or “consensus.” If that had been the case throughout the history of science, they’d still be demanding strict conformity to a Ptolemaic view of the universe along with banishment for unbelievers. The theories may have changed, but the modus operandi looks suspiciously the same.

So the questions is, Can scientists today–for whatever reason–disagree with the reigning scientific orthodoxy at secular universities and teach contrary to the received dogma without fear of marginalization or banishment? If not, then academic freedom is a sham at secular universities, which have become functionally no different than their faith-based peers where tests of orthodoxy may be  required as conditions for employment. And that will finally be the public acknowledgement by secularists that all education is inherently religious and the only question is which doctrines and dogmas will be strictly enforced.

A few evolutionary scientists are concerned about these new witch hunts by pro-evolutionary zealots and their implications  for everyone’s academic freedom. For example,

“Laurence A. Moran, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Toronto, wrote on his blog that he also agrees with the critique of the course, but not the idea that the professor should lose his right to teach it. ‘I defend the right of a tenured professor to teach whatever he/she believes to be true no matter how stupid it seems to the rest of us,’ he wrote. ‘I’m troubled by the fact that some people are calling for the instructor’s dismissal and writing letters to the chair of his department. We really don’t want to go down that path, do we? Academic freedom is important and it’s especially important to defend it when a professor is pushing a view that we disagree with.’

We really don’t want to go down that path, do we? That is the question.

If, in their zeal to defend and promote evolutionary theory, its advocates are willing to invoke the power of the state to crush alternative views or threaten deviants with loss of employment, then not only will that action crush those who disagree with them–Intelligent Design advocates, creationists, et al.–but it will crush science and academic freedom along with them. That will turn out to be  self-destruction.

For that approach to win, they will necessarily have to shoot themselves in the foot. That will make them top candidates for next year’s Darwin Awards.

Do they really want to go down that path? Let’s hope not–for their sakes.


*For example, in this recent Inside Higher Ed story, Jerry A. Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the the University of Chicago, is quoted, saying the course in question “is little more than a course in accommodationism and Christian religion, with very little science. It’s my firm opinion that teaching this course at a state university not only violates the First Amendment . . . .” [emphasis added]. If he’s been quoted correctly and in context, then Coyne’s credibility as a scientist is undermined by an appalling ignorance of the First Amendment he invokes. The First Amendment simply and singularly restricts government from making laws [“Congress shall make no law . . .”] which encroach on the free exercise of religion (or on free speech, free press and free assembly).  Coyne wrongly suggests that the First Amendment does the opposite–protects the state from the free exercise of religion.