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A Call for Honesty in Christian Scholarship

A Call for Honesty in Christian Scholarship September 25, 2017

faith statement

At first glance, faith statements seem reasonable. There’s plenty to criticize, but let’s first see them from the standpoint of the Christian organizations that use them.

What’s a faith statement?

Faith statements are declarations like these.

  • “The mission of Discovery Institute’s Center for Science and Culture is to advance the understanding that human beings and nature are the result of intelligent design rather than a blind and undirected process.”
  • A fragment from the faith statement of Houston Baptist University: “[Those connected with HBU must believe] that man was directly created by God, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, as the Son of God, [and] that He died for the sins of all men and thereafter arose from the grave.”
  • A fragment from Answers in Genesis: “By definition, no apparent, perceived or claimed evidence in any field, including history and chronology, can be valid if it contradicts the scriptural record.”

There are lots of interpretations of Christianity. If you want to donate to a Christian organization, you need to see if their beliefs line up with yours. The faith statement helps make that evaluation.

Academic freedom and conflicts of interest

Faith statements are good for donors, but they’re bad for the institutions that have them. A faith statement is a commitment to a conclusion. By accepting the conclusion beforehand, institutions governed by them forfeit their ability to defend or even comment on the points in those statements.

When a scholar from HBU concludes that the virgin birth is history rather than mythology, why believe it? That’s just the faith statement talking. The same is true when the Discovery Institute reports that intelligent design beats evolution or Answers in Genesis argues for a 6000-year-old earth.

Might the scholar simply have come to an unbiased conclusion? That’s possible, but how would we know? Mike Licona is a Christian scholar who found out the hard way that faith statements have teeth. In 2011, he lost two jobs because, in a 700-page book, he questioned the inerrancy of a single Bible verse (more here).

There is a stick raised above these Christian scholars that demands that they toe the line or else. With some conclusions predetermined to be correct and others incorrect, how do we know that their work is an honest search for the truth? We don’t, and indeed the work of every Christian scholar constrained by a faith statement is suspect.

By committing to the faith statement, they are ruling out certain conclusions before they’ve done any research. For example, the HBU statement says Jesus was born of a virgin. By signing that statement, a professor is publicly stating (among other things), “I promise to never conclude that the virgin birth was just a myth.”

Accepting and rejecting claims because of dogma rather than science got the Church into an embarrassing situation when it rejected Galileo’s heliocentric solar system. They only publicly retracted their error in 1992.

There are close to a thousand religiously affiliated U.S. colleges and universities plus many more ministries that make intellectual claims. The cloud of scholarly untrustworthiness hangs over a lot of Christians.

How things work in the real world: disclosure

Faith statements are a restriction on academic freedom according to The American Association of University Professors. But that’s not enough. In other areas of intellectual discourse, this constraint would be disclosed. Many medical journals have policies that demand that authors disclose conflicts of interest. The same is true for science journals (source). The American Historical Association’s “Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct” calls for historians to disclose any research assistance that could bias their conclusions.

Journalists are careful to avoid not only conflicts of interest but even the appearance of such conflicts. You’ve probably seen articles with an aside such as, “Full disclosure: I have a close relative who works for the company that is the subject of this article.”

The equivalent in judicial, legal, or governmental fields is called recusal—abstaining from participation in an issue that would cause a conflict of interest.

Does it matter when research about climate change is funded by a fossil fuel company rather than Greenpeace? Does it matter when research about smoking is funded by the Tobacco Institute rather than the National Institutes of Health? Does it matter when research about gun violence is funded by the National Rifle Association rather than the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence?

Just because research is funded by an organization with an interest in the result doesn’t mean that the research is flawed. The point is simply that that all potential biases should be made public.

Carry this thinking into Christian scholarship. Every blog post, journal article, book, or lecture from a Christian scholar constrained by a faith statement should have that faith statement disclosed.

The parallel world of Christian scholarship

Christian scholars seem to admire the respect given to fields like journalism, medicine, science, and so on. But rather than earning that respect the old-fashioned way, Christian scholarship creates a parallel world with training wheels.

Creationists can’t get published in Nature or Scientific American? No problem—Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis has created its own “peer-reviewed journal,” Answers Research Journal. The problem is that this is a journal constrained by yet another faith statement. The author submission guidelines make clear that any paper will be rejected if it “conflicts with the best interests of [Answers in Genesis] as judged by its biblical stand and goals outlined in its statement of faith.”

Christian colleges can teach whatever they want and call it “science.” Their religious shibboleth for science make it noteworthy when they teach evolution—that is, when they teach actual science.

They give themselves the right to domesticate science to avoid anything that steps on their theological toes and have their own science-y books, conferences, and home schooling curriculum.

But their parallel world is just a play table with clay and crayons. They only dream that they’re sitting at the adult table. Christian scholarship has sold its soul.

Here’s the cause and effect relationship. Donations power the Christian machine, and they don’t happen without a faith statement; a faith statement means that any “scholarship” is suspect; poor scholarship means that Christian scholars can’t play with the big boys; and that leads to their parallel Christian world with a low bar that they can cross.

Correcting the problem

With this article, I’m calling on Christian scholars to, as a first step toward legitimacy, disclose faith statements they’re bound by. Not admitting to a faith statement that prevents honest research is to break the ninth commandment against lying. Unfortunately, any who read this will ignore it because to do otherwise would risk breaking the spell. It would call attention to a weakness.

What’s surprising is that they will ignore it without embarrassment. They don’t need to whisper about damage control among themselves. They can publicly use the word “recant” when demanding that an errant scholar return to the fold, unconcerned about how that makes them very unlike the scientists, historians, and the other conventional scholars they admire. That was the word used with Mike Licona, the Christian scholar called to account (above). They used “recant” four centuries ago for Galileo; why not for Licona now?

But times are changing. In the time of Galileo, the church wasn’t questioned in the West. They held the intellectual high ground. That’s no longer true, and I expect that the need for credibility will increasingly conflict with the need for donations. Ignoring conflicts of interest and doing “scholarship” with Christian training wheels will become less acceptable.

This crime called blasphemy was invented by priests
for the purpose of defending doctrines
not able to take care of themselves.
— Robert Green Ingersoll

Image credit: Denise Krebs, flickr, CC

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