Extra-Credit Creationism?

Georgia Southern U. is looking into claims that a history professor is pushing his own anti-evolution views in his classes at the public university.

November 26, 2014
Georgia Southern University
Emerson T. McMullen

Lecturing for a week about how “evolution could not have happened.” Offering extra credit for students to watch the film “God’s Not Dead.” Showing religious bias in exam questions. Student reviews saying he’ll try to “convert you.”

Those charges, among others, make up a complaint filed recently by two First Amendment watchdog groups against T. Emerson McMullen, an associate professor of history at Georgia Southern University. The institution says it’s now investigating the professor for allegedly using his classroom at the public university to promote his anti-evolution Christian beliefs.

“We understand that as a historian, particularly a historian focused on science, McMullen could legitimately discuss the development of scientific ideas,” reads a letter sent to Georgia Southern from the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. “He could even legitimately discuss religious doctrines masquerading as science, such as young earth creationism and intelligent design.”

However, the letter continues, “it appears that McMullen does not present these as religious ideas lacking scientific merit. Instead, McMullen presents these religious beliefs as scientific fact. In short, McMullen appears to use at least some of his class to preach religion instead of teach history."

The First Amendment watchdog foundations lay out numerous allegations of proselytizing, including that – as reported by one original complainant – McMullen lectured for more than a week about “how evolution could not have happened.” The groups also reference several student reviews on RateMyProfessors.com saying that McMullen’s a “huge religious nut” who spends “a lot” of time talking about Darwinism, that he “tried to push is outdated views on the class,” and that his extra-credit assignments were “trying to convert you.”

McMullen, who teaches courses on the history of science and technology, also allegedly offered his students extra credit last semester to see the film “God’s Not Dead,” a pro-Christian drama about a college student who must prove the existence of God to his philosophy professor.

The foundations in their letter also accuse McMullen of showing bias toward Christianity in his essay questions for students, such as the following, which lays out four possible arguments for supporting the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin and many more “cons:”

Discuss the pros and cons of Darwin’s idea of evolution (descent, by modification and natural selection, from a common ancestor to man, complex species)

Pros: It was appealing at a time of great progress. It appeared scientific. Darwin was upper class in a class-conscious society. Some like its naturalism.

Cons: Darwin had no proof of evolution, only of adaptation (basically, change within a being’s genetic code). There was (and is) no solid evidence for descent from a common ancestor, and for the multitude of predicted transitional forms from one species to another. There was (and is) evidence that the earliest animals (like the trilobites) were complex, not simple. (The eye of the trilobite was fully adapted right at the start.) There was (and is) evidence that the earliest animals were very diverse. Darwin’s idea went against the fact that genetic information degrades from generation to generation, which explains why we see extinction today and not evolution. The implications of evolution’s naturalism also undercut Judeo-Christian morality, replacing it with notions like “might makes right” and that the “unfit” do not deserve to survive. This laid the foundation for eugenics, which led to sterilization for the “unfit” in the U.S.

On his private webpage, he has a lengthy piece called “How I Reasoned from Skepticism to Christianity.” In it, McMullen offers an account of his own conversion to Christianity:

“Some people can live with unresolved tension in their lives, but not me,” he says. “Engineers are trained problem solvers and I was working on this one. To slice through the quandary, I posed a hypothetical question. Suppose I had examined thoroughly every argument for the existence of God and concluded that it took a leap of faith, what then? After thinking it over, I decided I would believe. If so, then why bother testing every argument? Why not just believe since I would end up believing anyway? So I did. It was 1968.”

He continues: “Believing in God answered the big questions about origins that real science could not. Questions like: Did the Big Bang really occur? How could particles blown outward by this primal explosion accrete together to make stars, galaxies, solar systems, and planets?”

The First Amendment watchdog foundations ask that the university investigate the allegations and “require McMullen to stop preaching to his students.”

Maura Copeland, Georgia Southern's vice president for legal affairs, said in an emailed statement that the university had “received a letter containing allegations of inappropriate course content,” and that it “will investigate and respond appropriately.”

She added: “At this point, the university would be unable to confirm or deny the validity of the allegations, nor would we be able to predict the outcome of the investigation.”

McMullen did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview with the Statesboro-Herald, he denied trying to convert his students or preaching creationism, but also confirmed his disbelief in evolution.

"In some of my classes, like for instance, World History I, we're doing Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and then Christianity, and then later Islam, and also, I might add Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism,” he told the newspaper. But, he said, "I don't buy that we descended from a common ancestor.… I don't accept that as a scientist. I was an agnostic, thought science had the answers and, investigating science, I realized science didn't have all of the answers, including descent from a common ancestor, and then came to believe in God."

McMullen's Ph.D. is in the history and philosophy of science, he also has a master’s of science in engineering administration.

A university spokeswoman said she did not know if McMullen was teaching during the investigation, and that no one from the university’s legal affairs team was able to answer that question until after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Stephen P. Vives, chair of the university’s biology department, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. But the department’s webpage says it “recognizes the foundational importance of evolutionary theory to all of modern biology, and is in full agreement with the Society for the Study of Evolution’s statements on evolution and on the teaching of evolution.”

Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, runs a blog called Why Evolution Is True and reviewed some of the allegations and evidence against McMullen for the Freedom from Religion and Richard Dawkins foundations. He's quoted in their letter as saying that “virtually everything [McMullen] says about evolution is dead wrong. He’s teaching lies to students and pushing a religious viewpoint.”

In an interview, Coyne said that McMullen appeared to be doing far more proselytizing in his classes than others who have been investigated and reprimanded following such allegations in recent years. Eric Hedin, an assistant professor of astronomy and physics at Ball State University who was investigated last year for proselytizing in a class called “Boundaries of Science,” for example, asked students to read intelligent design proponents. 

McMullen, on the other hand, allegedly was "giving students credit for reading and analyzing articles about his own religious beliefs,” Coyne said. “This is just the worst, most embarrassing kind of creationism.”

Coyne said he was confident that the university would find McMullen in violation of the First Amendment, which dictates the separation of church and state. Coyne, noted, however, that the teaching of creationism at the college and university level has never been legally tested.

John West, vice president of the Discovery Institute, which promotes the instruction of intelligent design and has defended Hedin, said the organization hasn’t been involved in McMullen’s case and so didn’t want to comment on specifics.

“However, I can say that we don’t support state university professors proselytizing for either religion or atheism in their classes,” West said via email.


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