Three years before he died, paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, one of my favorite popularizers of science, published a book called Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life, basically consigning the two subjects to different realms of thought and influence. Gould maintained that the two areas of inquiry asked and answered different questions that need not impinge on each other. The reaction was, well, reactionary and not all of it truly thoughtful. I thought at the time that many of the reviewers were hell-bent on developing their own Theory of Everything that reconciled all areas of human thought. Many scientists, skeptics, and atheists (sometimes embodied in one person) roundly denounced the work (and Gould, in the kind of low-blow ad hominem attacks they decry in others, I might add) for daring to try to "legitimize" religion or spirituality in the same breath as science.
This post is not about that.
I mention it because, as was inevitable, the question of whether a scientist can have any kind of religious faith or even just entertain the idea separately from his or her own professional work has now reached the courtroom stage in the case of Dr. C. Martin Gaskell, a University of Nebraska astronomer who was turned down for a post by the University of Kentucky because an internet search of his name revealed he was an evangelical Christian who wasn't shy about writing about astronomy and the Bible. Gaskell has taken pains to point out that he is not a creationist and he does not have any problems with the theory of evolution. A department staff member, Sally A. Shafer,
found links to his notes for a lecture that explores, among other topics, how the Bible could relate to contemporary astronomy. “Clearly this man is complex and likely fascinating to talk with,” Ms. Shafer wrote, “but potentially evangelical.” . . . Francis J. Manion, Dr. Gaskell’s lawyer, said: “I couldn’t have made up a better quote. ‘We like this guy, but he is potentially Jewish’? ‘Potentially Muslim’?”
Put in those terms, this becomes not just an issue of scientific accuracy and honesty, but of censorship and, yes, plain ole bigotry.
The job Gaskell applied for was running the new UKentucky student observatory, which also involves lecturing publicly about science. Keep in mind that UKentucky is not far from the Creation Museum in the heart of the Bible Belt, which may have contributed to their jitters about hiring someone they perceive as working for the other side. But it may be that it's that perception that's the problem. One of the basic rules of discrimination and bigotry as that it lumps large numbers of people together in a single group without regard for individual differences. The terrorists who took down the Twin Towers in 2001 were Muslim; hence all Muslims are terrorists. Stated so baldly, bigotry is laughably simplistic to anyone with the ability to analyze and think for themselves—a trait I would hope scientists and education leaders would possess in abundance.
Now, bear with me for a moment and imagine you are a practicing Christian—not an unquestioning, blindly faithful zombie Christian, but a thoughtful, questioning, testing-your-faith kinda Christian—living near the University of Kentucky where Dr. Gaskell has just been hired, and you see an advertisement for this talk by Dr. Gaskell: "Modern Astronomy, the Bible and Creation." Back in the day, when I was a Jehovah's Witness, I had a really healthy curiosity about Life, the Universe, and Everything and a talk like this would have more than piqued my interest. Quite likely, I'd have trundled off to hear it, possibly dragging one or two others of my equally curious JW friends with me. Here's what I would have heard (PDF) according to his own summary:
I give my responses to some of the questions I am most frequently asked on the subject of the Bible and modern astronomy. I start out by emphasizing that many scientists and philosophers have strong religious beliefs and I give some quotes from famous scientists and philosophers. I list, and briefly discuss, some of the main theological interpretational viewpoints of the creation stories in Genesis. It is explained that there are more than just two extreme views on the origin of the universe and that the majority of scientists who are Christians adhere neither to the view that the Bible is irrelevant to the earth's origin (which exponents of atheistic evolution claim) nor the view that God made the earth essentially as it now is in six 24-hour periods about 6000 years ago (the “young earth creationist” position.) [emphasis mine] The origin of Bishop Ussher's date of creation is explained and the question of “days” in Genesis 1 is discussed. Examples of where modern astronomy is supporting the details of Genesis 1 are described. A list of suggested readings for those who wish to read more about Christianity, the Bible, and some of the scientific issues is appended.
Gaskell goes on to say that, "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." "Mostly very poor science," huh? Hmmm. And that would have piqued my interest too. Why is it poor science, I would have wondered? Further investigation would have followed—and did, in a similar situation, leading me to where I am now: skeptic in fact if not by affiliation, and Buddhist fellow-traveller.
Honestly, none of Gaskell's talk sounds Creationist to me. What Gaskell is actually doing is finding common ground with his audience, in this case the Bible, to talk about science, without distorting either. This is something Jennifer does with just about every post she writes, but her common ground is pop culture. And as a former fundy science nerd, I can testify that science history this reasonably presented would have been greeted with interest by any but the most fundamentalist of Christians, who are probably already a write-off. But that's not what happened in Kentucky. There was nothing reasonable about the response in Kentucky. Oh, no. There was, instead, a "rush to judgment."
In recent years there's been more than a hint of the hysterical witch hunt in the voices of some skeptics and scientists crusading (and yes, I use that word intentionally) against creationism and Intelligent Design. Phil Plait, the favorite Bad Astronomer of Cocktail Party Physics, addressed this at a recent TAM meeting in his inimitable way, in a talk called "Don't be a Dick":
Rather than seeing someone like Gaskell as a possible bridge between the reasonable, questioning, curious Christian community (and there is one; I've been part of it), UKentucky freaked out about a possible PR nightmare in hiring someone perceived as a narrow-minded pseudo-scientist. One thing I don't think you can accuse Dr. Gaskell of is being a pseudo-scientist. If you skim his publication lists (he's now at the University of Texas), you'll see he's co-authoring with legitimate scientists in his field, and publishing in all the usual places that "real" astronomers publish in. Not the Discovery Institute, but the American Astronomical Society's journal, and other well-known scientific journals.
Now, call me crazy, but I always thought the purpose of a university was to offer education. It's hard to educate people if you don't speak at least some of their language. Most Christians—most religious people of any stripe—feel that scientists not only don't speak their language, but are only interested in belittling them, not in having a reasonable conversation with them. So even if you have questions, as a religious or spiritually inclined person, who are you supposed to ask, when the scientists will just mock you? As Phil says in his talk, we should be "relying on the merits of the arguments, which is what critical thinking is all about, what evidence-based reasoning is about." Not vitriol. Not bigotry. Not prejudice.
The truth about the history of scientific thought that many modern scientists would like to shove under the rug is that it sprang out of the only educated community in the middle ages and Renaissance: church clerics. Before the Age of Enlightenment was the Age of Enlightenment, it was the Age of Faith, and you can take the boy outta the church, but you can't take the church outta the boy. References to God and creation are everywhere in the history of scientific inquiry, even if only used metaphorically. Why not use them, as Gaskell does, as a lever to open the doors of blind faith just a crack, to slip in some scientific fact? It accomplishes more than just telling people they are fools and morons. Skepticism isn't teaching people what to think; it's teaching people how to think. You don't accomplish that by telling them that everything they know is wrong.
I'm glad Gaskell is bringing this issue to court, because it's something the scientific community needs to confront about itself. By tarring all spiritual seekers with the same brush of ignorance, extremists in the the secular world in general and the skeptical community in particular reveal their own fear of the Other, the same kind of cheap, petty, ignorant fear that white supremacists, jihadists, and homophobes display. Not nice company to be lumped into, is it? Fear isn't rational, though. And that alone should wake you up, if you're one of those frothing at the mouth skeptic/atheists. Use the rational mind that God gave you, for Pete's sake.