Classroom Proselytising: It’s Not Just for Kids Anymore

Anne here…

Ball State University is a publicly funded institution of higher learning in Muncie, Indiana. A possible violation of the separation of church and state has raised the eyebrows of students in a certain  science class, “The Boundaries of Science,” taught by physics and astronomy professor Eric Hedin.  The course fulfills a science requirement in the core curriculum – in other words, it is science for non-scientists.  The syllabus for the class is clear that to some extent the role of religion in defining the world will be addressed, because it says,

We will also investigate physical reality and the boundaries of science for any hidden wisdom within this reality which may illuminate the central questions of the purpose of our existence and the meaning of life. This course is designed to allow students to take a more in-depth look at the beauty and complexity of the universe and life and to give food for thought about deeper questions which remain central to human existence.

This description should give anyone a heads-up that this is not a hard science class. Science cannot and should not answer questions about the “meaning” of life or the “purpose of our existence.” Those questions belong in philosophy classes, not physics classes.

Dr. Jerry Coyne, who teaches in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and is an honorary board member at FFRF, is not pleased. In strong verbiage, he has condemned the class as an has written several blog posts recently about the fact that since 2006 several students have complained that Hedin’s approach to the intersection of science and religion has a distinctly Christian flavor, and that they are not happy about it. Comments by several students on RateMyProfessors.com confirm this.

Because the course reading list is weighted with Christian apologists, old-earth creationists, and supporters of intelligent design, but fails to include readings from reputable scientists refuting intelligent design and creationism, Dr. Coyne is understandably concerned that the course is slanted in favor of religion. He wrote the dean of the Physics Department at Ball State, but the school stood by its decision to allow the course. Naturally, FFRF got involved.

Andrew Seidel, an FFRF staff attorney, wrote a detailed letter explaining the concerns and the law. He has asked the president of the university to investigate the matter further.

A class that actually does investigate the intersection between science and religion, especially with respect to the deistic “Prime Mover” principle, would indeed be an interesting topic to explore in the safety of a classroom, where the common questions about it could be fielded, answered, and studied in a scientific manner. If the topic is to be examined only from a religious point of view, though, it should not be in a class that not only awards a credit for natural science, but misinforms non-science students about the nature and process of scientific inquiry.

Ball State is a reputable institution and has a history of taking academic standards very seriously. To the dismay of the Discovery Institute and other Christian apologists and science-deniers, on Tuesday Ball State issued a statement assuring the public that it will investigate the matter.

Academic freedom is important. The syllabus, reading list, and the complaints by students raise a red flag, but perhaps with investigation it will be determined that the class really is a science class, not a Christian apologist’s platform for proselytizing under the guise of scientific authority. If is is a philosophy class, hopefully it will be reclassified so as to remove it from the science curriculum. Perhaps it would be a good freshman seminar – but, again, only if the views are balanced. In fact, if I were designing this course, I’d probably suggest it be team-taught by both the philosophy and science departments. That might make it worthwhile, indeed.

I’m not an academician, so my view on this is necessarily from the outside looking in. As a parent currently paying college tuition, though, I will say that I don’t want to pay for my college-age kid to take a science course only to find out the professor is promoting anti-science. I would consider it the most ignoble sort of bait-and-switch for my Humanities-oriented offspring to fulfill his science core requirement with pseudoscience. Knowing my offspring as I do, he’d be pretty upset about it, too. I’d want my money back, and he’d want his time back. Rather than learning made-up stuff like this, he could be playing Mass Effect or running a World of Darkness game. Those are intelligently-designed worlds worth spending a certain amount of quality time in. Or he could be watching the original Battlestar Galactica on Netflix. Or, I don’t know, writing a history paper.

Just, please, if a college is going to offer this course, don’t call it science. To do so is misleading at best. It strikes me as downright fraudulent, not to mention academically dishonest and irresponsible. And while academic freedom should certainly be encouraged, dishonesty, fraud, and anti-science should definitely not be.

 

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About Anne

Civil rights activist Anne Orsi is one of the spokespeople for the Arkansas Society of Freethinkers and is the primary organizer of Reason in the Rock, a conference on science, secularism and skepticism. Got a question? Email her at anne@aramink.com. She's a lawyer but may not be licensed in your state. Sending her an email or reading her blog posts does not create an attorney-client relationship. Find Anne on Twitter as @aramink, and read her regular blog at www.aramink.com.


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