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Academic Freedom and Evolution

December 10, 2007

Opponents of evolution have of late been trying to frame their arguments as being about academic freedom and free expression. As a result, the anti-evolution Discovery Institute is ecstatic over the recent discovery of e-mail messages among professors at Iowa State University criticizing the views of a pro-intelligent design professor whose tenure bid was denied. "Dr. Guillermo Gonzalez and Academic Persecution" is the title of the institute's Web page about the case. (Iowa State says that the professor's views on evolution were not a decisive factor in his dismissal.)

The Christian Law Association, meanwhile, frames a lawsuit against the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution by a fired postdoc who does not believe in evolution or want to do work related to evolution as a matter of his being punished for his beliefs.

But the groups arguing for freedom of expression of evolution deniers have not been heard agitating for the rights of Richard Colling. He's a professor at Olivet Nazarene University, in Illinois, who has been barred from teaching general biology or having his book taught at the university that is his alma mater and the place where he has taught for 27 years. A biologist who is very much a person of faith, these punishments followed anger by some religious supporters of the college over the publication of his book in which he argues that it is possible to believe in God and still accept evolution.

"I thought I was doing the church a service," Colling said in an interview. He believes that religious colleges that frame science and faith as incompatible will lose some of their best minds, and that his work has been devoted to helping faithful students maintain their religious devotion while learning science as science should be taught.

"You can't check your intellect at the door of the church," he said. Colling has tenure and he hasn't been fired or had his pay cut -- which university officials have told the American Association of University Professors means that Olivet Nazarene can't be accused of violating his academic freedom.

Actually, the AAUP tends to believe that having courses taken away (without due process) and having your books banned generally is a violation of academic freedom, and the association is currently investigating the case while pushing (without success) for the sanctions against Colling to be lifted. The case is in many ways notable because the AAUP gives religious colleges considerable leeway in enforcing religious beliefs and is getting involved here only because of evidence that the university is violating its own stated principles. At the same time, the AAUP says that proponents of intelligent design are not necessarily correctly citing the principles of academic freedom in some other prominent cases attracting attention.

Colling's career at Olivet Nazarene was successful until the publication in 2004 of Random Designer, his attempt to offer a philosophy in which religious people can study evolution with scientific seriousness, and scientists can embrace faith. The central idea, in short, is that one can believe that God created the universe, and in so doing created the systems that would evolve into everything that exists today. Colling acknowledges that it is not possible to believe literally in the Bible's creation of the world in six days but argues that this need not diminish the moral force of the Bible or belief in God.

As a biologist, Colling said that he thinks there is simply no argument that rebuts evolution, and that the evidence is overwhelming. But in writing his book, he said that he didn't think of himself as remotely heretical. In fact, he said that one of the things he admires about the Church of the Nazarene is that -- provided one believes in God -- the faith embraces science.

Official church policy (confirmed by a spokeswoman for the university) states as follows: "The Church of the Nazarene believes in the biblical account of creation ('In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth ....' Genesis 1:1). We oppose any godless interpretation of the origin of the universe and of humankind. However, the church accepts as valid all scientifically verifiable discoveries in geology and other natural phenomena, for we firmly believe that God is the Creator."

Colling's story (confirmed by AAUP officials who have been investigating the case) is that trouble started last summer, as word about his views spread to some conservative churches in the denomination, and word reached him that some trustees wanted him fired. But President John C. Bowling came to his defense, and nothing happened.

Bowling has also spoken out about how religion and science can be reconciled, arguing that they can interact (although his analysis places more of an emphasis on the primacy of faith). In an address to students last year, Bowling explored these issues. "Christianity should not be viewed as adversarial to diligent science. It is not. God created the natural order and the laws which govern it. Science and faith are not enemies," he said. "But let's go a step further. How do we respond when we come to a point of apparent conflict between scripture and science? I believe that at a point, Scripture takes pre-eminence. For example, the miraculous activity of God, ultimately demonstrated in the incarnation (Jesus becoming human), and the resurrection, can never be explained by science; such events do not fit the laws of science. So if we subvert the faith to what can be explained by the laws of science alone, we fall short of the Biblical view of God and salvation."

On the question of evolution, Bowling said this: "The Christian faith and some understandings of evolution are not necessarily incompatible. However, I want to be very clear in saying that not every articulation of evolution will do; not at all. That is to say, evolution must be understood in certain ways to be compatible with Christian faith. The Christian affirmation of God as Creator affirms God as initially creating, but also continually sustaining, actively interacting, and purposefully directing creation to its culmination. All things come from Him, exist in Him, and move to Him. Evolution, if it is to be held by a Christian, must be considered as a methodology of divine creation within that broader Biblical context."

This spring, according to Colling, he was called to Bowling's office and told that because of the controversy over his book, he could no longer teach the general biology course, and that his book could not be taught in the biology department at all. Colling said that he asked Bowling if there was anything in his book or teaching that was inappropriate or un-Christian, and Colling cited nothing. (A spokeswoman for the university said Friday that only Bowling was authorized to talk about the case, and that he was unavailable.)

Colling said that the bans on what he can teach have hurt him deeply because he feels that he was trying to help his church and its students. He stressed that he has never told students what they must believe, but that he teaches "what the science says," which is that evolution is real. "I have an obligation. If we say we value the principles of academic freedom and we say that all verifiable science is fine, this is verifiable science that should be taught."

Some students in the past have been troubled by evolution, Colling said, because they fear that if they study science, they must leave their faith behind. "My challenge has been to be a real human being to them and to assure them that the biology does not need to threaten their faith."

Jonathan Knight, who directs the academic freedom division of the AAUP, said that in cases where religious colleges explicitly require faculty members to reject evolution or other scientific beliefs, the association would not bring academic freedom investigations.

"If a private, church-related institution says that to be a member of this faculty, you must believe in the inerrancy of the biblical account of the origins of life, we would scratch our heads on whether it's going to be very productive in terms of science education, but we wouldn't say that they have violated academic freedom," Knight said. "They are entitled to set out the rules of the game, and they have done so, and so be it."

Plenty of colleges do just that. For example, the postdoc who was fired at Woods Hole took a job at Liberty University, where the doctrinal statement, among other things, requires the belief that "the universe was created in six historical days." Knight said that was entirely within Liberty University's right to state and enforce, as far as the AAUP is concerned.

But what of Woods Hole or other scientifically oriented institutions that may not want to hire people or who may want to fire people who would teach against evolution in the classroom or refuse to do laboratory work based on evolution? The fears are not just theoretical -- the lawsuits over such dismissals are very real, and many academics fear that the "Academic Bill of Rights" or similar measures backed by some conservatives would make it hard for them to keep out people whose teachings might run counter to science.

Knight said he could not think of a case where the AAUP had been asked to investigate the claims of anti-evolution professors.

AAUP documents have explicitly and implicitly affirmed the right of departments to recognize evolution as something that is established fact. The association's recent statement on "Freedom in the Classroom" states that "it is not indoctrination for professors of biology to require students to understand principles of evolution; indeed, it would be a dereliction of professional responsibility to fail to do so."

And a 1986 AAUP document, "Some Observations on Ideology, Competence and Faculty Selection," says it is legitimate in some cases for departments to intentionally exclude certain perspectives when doing hiring. "Not just any currently debated approach to a subject has a degree of importance which should guarantee it time in the classroom, and classroom time not being unlimited, choices have to be made," the statement says. "An institution of higher learning should welcome those who offer to bring it new ideas; but there is not evading the substantive question whether the new ideas a candidate offers to bring it really are that -- as opposed, perhaps, to mere passing fads or fancies."

 

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