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?

  • Richard Blinne

    For some background, see the following post that seems to have been the point of controversy:
    Also, a local paper has more detail that then NY Times.
    Here’s the quote that appears to have gotten Gaskell into trouble:
    “The main controversy has been between people at the two extremes (young earth creationists and humanistic evolutionists). “Creationists” attack the science of “evolutionists”. I believe that this sort of attack is very bad both scientifically and theologically. The “scientific” explanations offered by “creationists” are mostly very poor science and I believe this sort of thing actually hinders some (many?) scientists becoming Christians. It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations. It is the latter that “creationists” should really be attacking (many books do, in fact, attack these unwarranted assumptions and extrapolations).” [emphasis mine]

    The emboldened section was pulled out of context. Just because someone says a theory has “problems” does not make him out to be a creationist. In fact, later comments in greater specificity on what these “problems” are:
    “Although this is getting outside the realm of astronomy, it should be realized that, despite some popular claims to the contrary, science has no satisfactory explanation of the origins of life yet. Note that the question of the origin of life is a separate problem from the question of the validity of some theories of evolution. The evidence is very good (and gets stronger every year) that all life on earth descended (i.e., evolved from) from a common origin. There is still a problem of the ultimate origin of life.”
    Here’s the Courier Journal’s description of the court record:

    “One search committee member, Sally Shafer, called Gaskell “fascinating,” but “potentially evangelical” in an e-mail to the chairs of the search committee and the Department of Physics and Astronomy.
    The court record also shows:
    An astronomy professor, Moshe Elitzur, told department chair Michael Cavagnero that he feared embarrassing headlines about Kentucky’s flagship university hiring a “creationist” in a state already home to the controversial Creation Museum.
    And three UK biology professors consulted by Cavagnero vigorously objected to Gaskell’s hiring.
    One, Jim Krupa, said hiring Gaskell would be a “disaster,” particularly because UK planned to use the observatory to promote science education among the general public. UK “might as well have folks from the Creation Museum get involved with UK’s science outreach” if it hired him, he wrote to Cavagnero.
    Another geology professor, Shelly Steiner, wrote that UK should no more hire an astronomer skeptical of evolution than “a biologist who believed that the sun revolved around the Earth.

    Gaskell has said he rejects the brand of creationism taught at the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky, which presents a literal interpretation of the Bible. It says the Earth and all life were created a few thousand years ago in six 24-hour days and disputes the scientific consensus that both developed gradually over billions of years.
    Gaskell, in his lecture notes, calls such creationism “very bad scientifically and theologically” and said it “actually hinders some scientists becoming Christians.”
    But UK biologists said in their e-mails that evidence for evolution was so overwhelming that Gaskell had no scientific basis to raise questions about it.”
    But as I noted above Gaskell did not dispute that there was overwhelming evidence for evolution but the contrary. In the attempt to avoid a repeat of the embarrassment of the Creationist Museum they failed to get the main point of the essay which is don’t conflate Christianity with young-earth creationism or to opt for the extremes in the controversy.
    Haskell’s lawyer summed this up nicely:
    One of Gaskell’s attorneys, Francis J. Manion, said Gaskell “would have been the perfect foil to what those (UK) decision-makers view as the kind of scientific obscurantism represented by the Creation Museum: an openly Christian man of science who accepts evolution.”
    Note: Gaskell’s attorney is from the conservative ACLJ, founded by Jay Sekulow.
    Randy, it looks like there will be a fair hearing where all the facts will come out. The judge in the case denied summary judgment to UK and granted a jury trial because:
    “Now a federal judge says Gaskell has a right to a jury trial over his allegation that he lost the job because he is a Christian and “potentially evangelical.”

    “The record contains substantial evidence that Gaskell was a leading candidate for the position until the issue of his religion or his scientific position became an issue,” U.S. Senior District Judge Karl S. Forester of the Eastern District of Kentucky wrote late last month in rejecting the university’s motion for summary judgment, which would have dismissed the case.”
    The University claims they denied him the job because he got poor review and wasn’t a “good listener”. (If being a good listener was a qualification for being on the UK faculty then they failed given some of the examples of gross misreadings Gaskell’s essay by UK faculty.) Which version of the “facts” is true hopefully will come out during trial which starts February 8.

  • Richard,
    Thank you for the background info and flushing out the details. It will be interesting how this plays out. I see why UK was hesitant in hiring Gaskell, but it also looks like they were too hasty. Did you run across whether Gaskell would consider himself a proponent of Intelligent Design or Theistic Evolution?

  • Richard Blinne

    “Did you run across whether Gaskell would consider himself a proponent of Intelligent Design or Theistic Evolution?”

    From his “controversial” paper you cannot tell which was probably why some people were looking for dog whistles. The key reason why you cannot tell was this was a survey of views and not an advocacy piece like my recent post here. One of the qualifications for the job was being able to do outreach to the community. Furthermore, Kentucky is very religiously conservative so they are a key constituency you want to reach. Towards this end, compare and contrast Gaskell’s paper I referenced above with this one by Eugenie Scott who no one would accuse of being a “potential evangelical”.
    Both surveys of thought about origins roughly cover the same territory and share many common terms such as “progressive creationism” and “theistic evolution”. Gaskell’s audience was other Christians so he got into more of the theological issues concerning Genesis. One thing he did mention that Eugenie Scott didn’t and is key to the outreach question is what the majority view amongst scientists who are Christians is.
    “Theistic Evolution” and “Progressive Creation”. These are perhaps the most popular positions among scientists who are Christians. They say that things happen the way science says that they do, but that God is still in charge and able to intervene as he wills. There are many theories in these categories. Opinions differ as to when and how God intervenes. “Intelligent Design” positions (see below) belong in this category. Theistic evolution is pretty much the official position of the Roman Catholic church.

    Note how he doesn’t take sides here. Ironically, this paper should have commended him rather than impeded him from the job. We will have to wait and see from the trial what his own views are and whether the hiring process violated his civil rights. Still, we can see clearly that he was the victim of the very polarized atmosphere that he was trying to solve.

  • Richard Blinne

    “Did you run across whether Gaskell would consider himself a proponent of Intelligent Design or Theistic Evolution?”
    The following was in 24 December Science. Note the quotes below from ASA President, Jennifer Wiseman.
    “In an e-mail to Science, Gaskell called himself an “old earth theistic evolutionist,” a label that deems evolution a tool God used to develop life. In his deposition and his e-mail, Gaskell says he is not a creationist or a subscriber to intelligent design, both of which, to varying degrees, discount natural selection. However, his lecture notes cite work by astronomer Hugh Ross, who embraces an old Earth, as geologists do, but rejects evolution as the guiding principle for life.
    “I had no trouble with the natural selection process,” Gaskell said in his deposition. But “when it comes to trying to explain everything, and particularly the origin of life, … we just don’t have any satisfactory theory.”
    Jennifer Wiseman, an astrophysicist who has known Gaskell professionally for 20 years, says she doesn’t consider Gaskell a creationist. “He doesn’t discount or disbelieve evolution,” says Wiseman, who directs the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion program at AAAS (which publishes Science). A religious scientist who cites ongoing puzzles in evolution sets off more alarms than when an atheist makes the same point, she believes.”

  • Wayne Dawson

    This is a little aside, but I don’t recall ever reading anything of Hugh Ross suggesting that he rejects evolution per se, at least up until about 2003.   Nor have I had that impression when I have talked to him personally.  So I cannot understand at this point where the notion that he rejects evolution comes from.

    The only thing I can think of that can be construed that way is how he handles the issue about fossil man.  There, unfortunately (in my opinion), Ross proposes that modern humans were made independent of fossil man.  Perhaps this could be construed as “rejecting the evolution of modern humans from earlier forms of fossil man”.   It certainly complicates his position and I find it hard to reconcile with the evidence.   Nevertheless, Ross argues the instance of humans to be a unique creation event; it’s an act of prestidigitation, it cuts razor fine along the edge and it certainly raises other questions, but it’s not technically a rejection of evolution, in the legalistic sense anyway.

    At any rate, I am concerned that we have misrepresented Ross’ view on evolution here.  I never had that kind of impression about him, but maybe I am wrong.

  • Terry M. Gray

    Wayne, I think Rich’s description is accurate. See the first Q & A in the FAQ at He defines theistic evolution as God-directed Darwinism and rejects it. As I understand it, Hugh Ross and his staff are old earth creationists. A miraculous creative event occurs with each new species (or perhaps higher taxonomic category).

  • Edward Davis

    I’m very concerned about this situation.  From the evidence I have seen thus far, it appears to me that Martin Gaskell is in fact a victim of an illegal form of religious discrimination (there are obviously legal forms of religious discrimination, such as the requirement that the rabbi of a synagogue be Jewish).  The tendentious atmosphere for talking about science and religion in modern America has probably contributed to this situation.  Specifically, it appears to me that the biology faculty have no legitimate basis at all for their concerns about hiring Dr Gaskell.  I suspect, to be frank, that they don’t really know what they’re talking about, when it comes to understanding a range of opinions about science and religion, which translates in this case into rejecting Dr Gaskell’s carefully articulated views on the basis of their own ignorance.
    I hope he wins his lawsuit, though it’d be great to have the university reverse its decision and offer him the job–with enthusaism and without the suit.
    This situation, with the statement about being “potentially evangelical” (as if that were a bad thing) brings to mind a conversation I had a few years ago with a leading science writer, someone who teaches science writing at university level.  We were discussing the religious beliefs of certain scientists, and this person made a point of saying that, if they had charge of hiring science faculty at that university (a counter-factual state of affairs), they would not hire John Polkinghorne–his Christian beliefs imply that he’s not really a good scientist, apparently, despite all evidence to the contrary.
    This type of bias is probably more widespread than we might think.  I recall being told once, by a friend in my own academic discipline (and a former believer), that “places like X [this person’s university] don’t hire people from places like Messiah.”  In context, it meant pretty much what that science writer meant: Christians need not apply.

  • Wayne Dawson

    I finally had a chance to contact the translator of most of Ross’ books here in Japan.  It is not the horse’s mouth, but he know Ross very well, and I have known him for many years. I had some reason for my incredulity.   
    When I asked him about the statement on they have at the RTB web site 

    “Hugh Ross, has been on the frontiers of making biblical and
    scientific the case against Darwinism for more than 2 decades.
    RTB scholars believe that God miraculously intervened throughout
    the history of the universe in various ways millions, possibly
    even billions, of times to create each and every new species of
    life on Earth. ”
    he explained that RTB is rejecting the “undirected” (and purposeless) notion of evolution.  In this respect, they are reacting to a popular usage of the word Darwinism.  This is not all RTB’s fault.  I seem to recall Dawkins uses the term “Darwinism” too.  As Eugenie Scott wrote
    “When members of the nonscientific public hear a sentence such as “Man is the result of a purposeless and natural process that did not have him in mind.” (Simpson, 1967:344) or “The important claim of “evolution” is that life developed gradually from nonliving matter to its present state of diverse complexity through purposeless natural mechanisms that are known to science”. (Johnson, 1990:33) the former by a distinguished evolutionary biologist and the latter by a modern antievolutionist, they misled into thinking that evolution is inherently antireligious. Such misunderstandings are a major barrier to the public’s acceptance of evolution. But statements of Ultimate cause are outside of science. …. ”
    ( From )
    So granted, the text says “Darwinism”, and they probably should make clear what they mean by “Darwinism”.  Nevertheless, they are not rejecting evolution, they are rejecting the claim of purposelessness that advocates for scientism are saying (who also use this term).  That is not so far from the attitude of most ASA folk. 
    On the other issues of “intervention” and “millions, possibly even billions”, according to the translator, RTB promotes a “progressive creationism” over theistic evolution.  Their view of progressive creationism is that an incremental approach is inadequate to explain the fossil record.  Essentially they think there may be gaps “non-linear jumps” that cannot be explainable by the natural processes alone.  Moreover, if all the processes can be explained by incremental changes, then essentially they see progressive creation and theistic evolution being basically the same thing.  RTB seems to draw the “boundaries” at the species level.
    Therefore, as far as “intervention” goes, they also think this is either through primary or secondary causes.  So even as far as my previous comments on RTB’s view of the modern human and fossil man, the main thing is that RTB insists that the gaps between fossil man and the modern human are too large to fill with an incremental model and therefore God would have had to intervene (either directly or indirectly through secondary processes) to cross that.  I am not so sure that is necessary, but they are certainly not implying a silly voulu notion of the process.
    So there may be issues about the definitions Ross (and RTB) use to describe what they think on the subject of evolution, and they probably need to consider how they can clarify their views for professional readers in molecular biology and molecular evolution, but they do hedge their claims (at least in private discussion) to “may be”, “could be”, “unlikely to….” etc.  That aspect is not so different from what long time posters on the ASA list tended to argue.
    So I don’t see Ross rejecting evolution as being at least possible for the whole thing.  Ross’ opinion appears to be that the distance is too large to be explained properly by an incremental evolution.  Whereas specific aspects of their model can be disputed (for one thing, there is nothing restricting evolution to gradual processes other than how people insist on defining it), RTB’s position is basically consistent with accepting evolution (with objections).  Neither are they, in principle, against the notion of testability, though (in my opinion) I can feel a little too much of that “the sensei’s always right” in their responses. 
    Therefore, as far as evolution is concerned, I don’t see RTB’s far distant from what many frequent list member of ASA tended to feel, and certainly far from ICR or AiG on the role of evolution in God’s interactions with the world. Neither do they insist that there must be gaps in most cases, though they think they are significant. In short, most of their views of origins would tolerate a fully evolutionary process (whether gradual or in leaps) as long as the proviso of God being “involved” is included. The only point where they pretty sure to split hairs is on the issue of fossil man vs the modern human.
    By Grace we proceed,


  • Randy Isaac

    Wayne, I appreciate your giving RTB every benefit of the doubt. I do wish that RTB were more careful in distinguishing among the various nuances of the term “evolution.” For instance, in Hugh Ross’s debate with Jason Lisle on the age of the earth on radio station KKLA on April 1, 2010, the host repeatedly introduced them as both being “hostile to evolution.” Both of them concurred and the phrase was repeated several times with no further clarification of what was meant.
    In general, RTB takes a stand against common ancestry which is a key aspect of evolution. So even if there is a claim that change might have occurred, the scientific understanding of the term “evolution” is not something endorsed by RTB.
    It may also be worth noting that some degree of change in species is endorsed even by Ken Ham who in the Creation Museum advocates a pace of evolution after the flood that far exceeds that which most scientists would think possible. So if we simply redefine evolution as some degree of change, then not only Hugh Ross but Ken Ham would qualify as being open to evolution. But that’s not what scientists mean by evolution, even if the metaphysical extrapolations are removed.


  • Terry M. Gray

    Wayne, the question itself in the FAQ mentions “supernaturally directed Darwinism” and appears to even define theistic evolution as supernaturally directed Darwinism. It seems clear to me that they are not talking about purposeless Darwinism. That this is the #1 question and answer in the RTB FAQ is pretty stark, if you ask me.

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