Faith-Based Hiring?

Astronomer Martin Gaskell has sued the University of Kentucky for discrimination based on religious faith when, in 2007, they bypassed him in favor of someone else to head their observatory. According to the NYTimes, the lawsuit alleges that Gaskell was denied the position on the basis of his religious beliefs. Martin and his wife have been long-time members of ASA. Though we do not have access to all relevant documents and evidence in order to make a judgment on the legal merits of this particular case, we at ASA are deeply concerned about the tendency toward, and the perception of, religious discrimination in hiring for scientific positions and in funding of research grants. We support Martin in his effort to clear the record in his case.
Several issues come to mind. First is the influence of faith as a factor in hiring decisions for science positions. In the case of private institutions whose mission involves a commitment to a statement of faith, a hiring decision in their science department might justifiably begin with a faith position. But regarding the credentials for a scientific position in a public institution or any other private laboratory, neither religious faith nor atheistic convictions should be a factor. It is not always easy to distinguish the real reason for a hiring decision and we must strive to eliminate any discrimination on the basis of religion.
Another issue is the potential influence of ideology or background beliefs of scientists on their work in science. ASA member Jitse Van Der Meer wrote an insightful article called Ideology and Science on this topic. He notes that whereas scientists do bring background beliefs to their work, the aim is always to achieve a scientific result independent of that ideology. The consilience of results from diverse background beliefs contributes to the confidence that the scientific work is in the right direction. Accordingly, an evangelical doing science correctly would achieve the same result as a Muslim or an atheist. The criterion of a good scientist should not be their religious belief itself but how those beliefs influence the science. Unfortunately, many evangelicals have been prone to advocate a modification of scientific results in order to meet their ideological preferences. Often they attempt to justify their approach by the perception that mainstream scientists have modified their science to meet atheistic preferences. Neither is correct.
There is an ever present tendency for profiling. We hear a lot about racial or ethnic profiling and here we may have indications of religious profiling. Widely disseminated media reports in the past decade or more have described evangelicals who have denied standard scientific methodology or scientific results based on their interpretation of the Bible. Whether it is the age of the earth or the validity of evolution, their skepticism is identified with evangelicalism. It is hard for the secular community to appreciate the nuances of the spectrum of opinions within evangelicalism. It is easier to profile all evangelicals as advocates of non-mainstream science.
We must stand against religious discrimination of any kind, as appears to have been the case with Gaskell. No decision of hiring for a scientific position or of funding of scientific research grants should be based on religious beliefs but on the qualifications of the individual alone. Being “potentially an evangelical” has no bearing on one’s scientific merit. Similarly, mainstream scientists are not to be portrayed as atheists whose lack of belief in a creator influences their science. The few who do attempt to alter their science to match their beliefs should not taint the vast majority of honest scientists whether they are evangelicals or atheists. Whatever statements Gaskell may have made in the past about issues beyond his field of expertise, it is abundantly clear that his own science is stellar and that he was the best candidate for the job. We urge a fair resolution of his case and a deeper understanding by everyone that being evangelical does not mean their science is distorted.

23 comments to Faith-Based Hiring?

  • […] better. Two recent news items that have been discussed on this blog are noteworthy. One was the case of Martin Gaskell and the role his faith allegedly played in the decision by the U of Kentucky not to offer him a […]

  • Preston Garrison

    This is belated, but there was a discussion here about whether Reasons to Believe leaves room for common descent as a possibility. A subsequent post as RTB is pretty clear:
    The answer is definitely no. This false opposition of common descent and “design” as if they were mutually exclusive, and as if “design” is, like common descent, a historical account of how species came to be, seems to the common currency at the moment of the majority of IDists who regard denying common descent as a doctrinal necessity. I’m guessing that this a purely rhetorical strategy – that what they really mean by “design” is “special creation of each species,” which is supposed to imply near perfect design in the ordinary sense of the word. But I don’t really know. I haven’t gotten a candid answer yet.

  • John Mullen

    For what it’s worth, I am convinced that Preston’s guess is correct.  ID is often used as a cover for those who hold to some version of special creation, but would rather not come out and say so.  I think that accounts for the difficulty in getting a candid answer, and it makes life especially difficult for ID advocates who do not wish to deny common descent.
    Also, the word “design” is often used to imply some sort of engineering efficiency, as opposed to the more general meaning that something is the product of some sort of intentional activity on the part of some person.  The latter is consistent with a thoroughly gradual path through biological space, if one should be found.

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