Academic Freedom or Intolerance of Faith?
That's how a Brooklyn College sociologist described religious people a few years ago. And to some in New York City, that's reason enough why Timothy Shortell should not be allowed to assume the post to which his colleagues just elected him: chairman of the sociology department. Editorials and articles this week in The New York Sun and The New York Daily News have blasted Shortell as intolerant, quoted religious students as saying that they were offended by his writings, and demanded that the college do something.
Brooklyn responded quickly. Christoph Kimmich, the president, sent letters to the newspapers in which he announced that he had appointed three college officials "to investigate the situation" and report back. Kimmich deplored the "offensive, anti-religion opinions" of Shortell. "While his right to express these views is protected, what is not protected is the injection of views like these into the classroom or into any administrative duties he might assume as chair of the sociology department," Kimmich wrote, adding that no one had complained that Shortell had in fact done so.
Shortell, in an e-mail interview, said, "Whatever else people try make of this, it is fundamentally an academic freedom issue. It is not simply my right to speak that is being threatened. If I can be denied the opportunity to lead a department based on presumptions about my political beliefs, so too can anyone else. Whose unpopular viewpoint will be questioned next?"
What did Shortell write to set off the furor?
The controversial essay appears on a Web site where Shortell said that he works as an artist "on various avant-garde projects." He noted that the Web site has no link to Brooklyn College and that his work there is "as a private citizen and independent artist."
The essay, "Religion & Morality: A Contradiction Explained," critiqued the role of religion. "Modern religion is a fundamental belief in magic," he wrote. The essay also argued that religion had numerous negative consequences.
Of religions, he wrote: "They persist today because they are so effective at constructing group identities and at setting up conflict between the in- and out-groups. For all religions, there is an 'us' and a 'them.' All the ritual and the fellowship associated with religious practice is just a means of continually emphasizing group boundaries."
The essay also compared religious people to children. "It is no wonder, then, that those who are religious are incapable of moral action, just as children are. To be moral requires that one accept full responsibility for one's self.... Morality is a basis for making choices, in the context of a particular political economy."
And in the paragraph with the "moral retards" quotation, he argued as follows: "On a personal level, religiosity is merely annoying -- like bad taste. This immaturity represents a significant social problem, however, because religious adherents fail to recognize their limitations. So, in the name of their faith, these moral retards are running around pointing fingers and doing real harm to others. One only has to read the newspaper to see the results of their handiwork. They discriminate, exclude and belittle. They make a virtue of closed-mindedness and virulent ignorance. They are an ugly, violent lot."
While much of the essay does not focus on particular faiths, Shortell specifically noted that his views do apply to Christians. "American Christians like to think that religious violence is a problem only for other faiths," he wrote. "In the heart of every Christian, though, is a tiny voice preaching self-righteousness, paranoia and hatred. Christians claim that theirs is a faith based on love, but they'll just as soon kill you. For your own good, of course."
Such material is manna for New York City editorial writers, who have questioned whether Shortell as department chair would impose his ideology as a test on tenure or hiring candidates.
The New York Sun on Wednesday wrote that taxpayers "have got to have the right to draw the line at what kind of person they want teaching students and participating in the tenure process. If a professor had spoken of, say, gay persons or Jews as moral retards, it's a safe bet that things would not be dealt with quite so delicately as they seem to be on Brooklyn College's campus at the moment. The best way for Mr. Kimmich to emerge from Brooklyn College with the reputation of a leader is to confront the bigotry on his campus at a time when all too many college presidents seem too timid to do so."
Calls to colleagues in Shortell's department were not returned Wednesday, nor were numerous e-mail messages and calls to others at the college. The public relations office at the college referred all questions on the matter to an outside publicist.
The New York Daily News, however, interviewed religious students who said that they were outraged by Shortell's promotion.
As for Shortell, in the e-mail interview, he said that he was not in fact anti-religious. He noted that his work as a scholar has included articles and research on the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador and black abolitionists in antebellum New York. "I am interested in the transformative power of discourse, and have an interest in religious discourse for that reason," he wrote. "In certain times and places, religion has been a powerful force for progressive social change."
Even if colleagues or students had religious views he did not share, Shortell said, he would never treat them unfairly as a result.
"What most commentators seem to forget is the nature of professional ethics," he said. "I don't worry when I visit my dentist, for example, that I am going to receive substandard care because he is a conservative Republican and I am not. I trust that he is a professional and when he is wearing his dentist's hat, as it were, he treats his patients to the best of his ability. When he is off-duty, sitting in an overstuffed chair at the country club, let's say, he is free to criticize my left-wing views and even insult me if he chooses."
He added: "It is a mistake to believe that simply because I have expressed my political views as a private citizen that I am unable to treat people fairly in my professional role. Any public university is going to attract a great deal of diversity. Indeed that is one of the things I enjoy most about Brooklyn College. I work all the time with people who are different from me in almost every way. There has never been any trouble. I treat people with respect and they reciprocate. That is how we all get along despite our differences."
While the tabloids may go after him, Shortell said that he thinks the controversy will pass. He wrote: "In the end, all of the clamor about my political views has been speculative -- that if I were chair I would discriminate because I've expressed my views in non-academic contexts. As I said, the people who know me realize that such speculation is nonsense. I'm a professional and I take my job seriously. At the end of the day, I think the matter is, to quote Shakespeare, 'full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.' "
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