Limits of Academic Freedom?

The question of limits to academic freedom is as old as academia itself and will likely never be settled. But it should be openly discussed so that through the process of discussion we understand the issues 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 position for which he was apparently the best qualified. The other is the ongoing saga of the implications of the study of human ancestry.
It would be hard to argue that there should be no limits whatsoever to academic freedom. For a faith-based institution, it seems reasonable to exclude those whose views are explicitly in opposition to the commitment of the institution. For public institutions, one would certainly expect no limitations based on faith but one could argue about extreme positions harmful to society.
While we may expect adherence to a statement of faith, a valid question arises in the context of science and faith. Is it ever right for a statement of faith to constrain what a scientist is allowed to observe? Setting aside any philosophical implications that scientists might draw from the observation, should academic freedom in any faith-based institution at least include freedom of observation? Granted, no observation is paradigm-free and we would expect a paradigm consistent with that of established western science.
In the examples cited above, Gaskell was apparently denied a position because of fear that his faith might erroneously affect his scientific observation and interpretation, despite evidence to the contrary. In the search for historical Adam and Eve, others have been called to account for seeking ways of dealing with conflicts between a statement of faith and growing scientific data.
What is your experience? What degree of academic freedom do you have in your institution? Are there limits? If so, are they reasonable in the field of science and faith?

5 comments to Limits of Academic Freedom?

  • John Haas

    Fallen From Grace
    Over the last 5 decades I have heard numerous stories of ASA members who have been sanctioned, lost their jobs, or been looked on with extreme disfavor by church or religious academic institutions.   The reasons were varied –  lines of communication blurred – the end result a tragedy for the individual.
    In an earlier role as PSCF editor I encouraged biblical scholars to rejoin the ASA to add their scholarship to our task.  This had been the case in the early years of the ASA but the theologians bailed out by the 70’s for safer territory.  Except for a few notable exceptions we were left with amateur theologian – scientists to put the pieces together.
    The recent return of the biblical scholars has provided new and diverse scriptural insights that help with the big picture of Genesis 1-11.  Yet, too many have paid a price for their contributions.  The reasons for this are complex and not the point of this note.
    As a “fellowship of Christians in Science,” is there anything that we can do to support those who “fall from grace” in their calling?  Is their anything that can be done to prevent such adverse outcomes?  Has the discussion become impossible to carry out except in the more liberal religious communities?
    Jack Haas

  • I don’t think there are any easy answers here. This is a mix of cultural issues within the secular society, institutional issues in the Christian University, and the convictions of the individual.

    After pondering this for several days, I still think that we best represent our faith when we speak the truth to the best of our ability to understand it. However, let me explain.

    First is the issue of whether a scientist is compromised by having a faith.

    Science, by its inductive nature, is agnostic. As scientists, we should be persuaded mainly by evidence, and generally, the most reliable evidence consists of reproducible physical measurements. That isn’t always possible in practice, so theoretical arguments are admissible when these arguments can (at least) be tested for consistency with observable data. String theory is arguably in a zone like this. Another case is evolution, where the process is inferred from the fossil record, genetic data, morphology, position of the fossils in the rock formations etc. It also is arguable that the gradual development of bacterial resistance is an example of evolution. The evidence for evolution is strongly compelling. Yet, because the investigation is inductive, there is the small possibility that this interpretation is inaccurate. Nevertheless, even if some revolutionary idea emerges and triumphs over our current thinking, past revolutions suggest that the new interpretation will broaden our perspective with the prior model being a special case of this bigger picture.

    Furthermore, as scientists, we should “accept”, not “believe in” our models, even our own models that we ourselves discover in the course of our scientific investigation. It follows that atheists are crossing the line as much as us Christian believers. These are worldviews and largely untestable assertions about the nature of ultimate reality. In fact, it is actually an abuse of science to claim that our probabilities prove or disprove the existence of God. We sometimes encounter a world that is utterly alien to what seems right and reasonable for a universe with a benevolent God. Yet, no matter how nihilist the universe may appear to be, no matter how rational it might appear to be to follow the crowd rather than go against the grain, no matter how many wicked people prosper, or no matter how much we might observe power and influence winning over truth, our faith in that benevolent God may still be the truth. This is the conundrum that Job faced. God had become an enigma, yet Job held to his convictions, where most of the other people in the account did not.

    In reality, no scientist can really be so agnostic as to not believe anything of his own convictions. We are complex people carrying a host of complex experiences that we all struggle to reconcile. So it is certainly wrong to question the integrity of a scientist based solely on the individual’s worldview. In fact, such assertions are brazenly hypocritical since no one would qualify as a true agnostic. (In fact, it would probably be insane to take that position on everything.) What is important is to recognize that we have our individual blind spots and take care to recognize when we are stepping into areas of faith.
    Second, now we get to institutions and matters within the Christian community.
    This is the community of faith. If, at some point, we find we have to differ with some of the tenets, views or traditions of the Christian community we are in, we may have to accept a very hard choice. I think we honor God best when we speak the truth, but I don’t think that we should be quick to decide to go against the grain of the community of faith any more than we would do so against the community of science. There has to be a very good reason. That might be a conflict between the scientific evidence and what our community requires. That could be the case with the historical Adam. I’m certainly not ready to take sides on the matter, especially because faith claims are typically a lot more malleable than scientific claims. One can still say, for example, that whereas the scientific evidence does not show a great deal of support for a single couple being the progenitor of all humanity (the historical Adam), it might still be true.

    From the standpoint of the institution, as thinkers who represent those institutions we work at, we should consider that Christian universities are often supported in part by a constituency that expects certain things. So we should remember that, when we stand up for something, we are not just standing up as an individual, we are also forcing the institution to take a position. This can cost the institution dearly. Institutions often live on much longer than we do, so we should consider that in taking a contrarian’s position. On the other hand, those responsible for maintaining the institutions should keep in mind that dead bodies are scattered all over the wide road to destruction in history. It is tough to change, and all the more so when it is an institution. Nevertheless, sometimes, that is the choice that must be made. Again, I think we honor God best by respecting the truth, but we should be conscious of the price the institution could pay in supporting us, particularly if we are the ones who turn out to be in error.

    Third is the conviction of the individual.
    Maturity is an ongoing process. The ways that I sorted out what was “obvious” at 10, differed from what I used in my 20s, and that too differed when I approached 40 something. I don’t know how I would sort out what seems “obvious” now. When I was younger, I certainly took risks that I would be more cautious about taking now. We are human, and we can err. Therefore, it is important to consider how important it really is to make issue of something, and what price we might pay for choosing to do so. Unfortunately, as Jack pointed out, sometimes there is a very big price that was paid and almost surely will be paid in the future by others. I’d like to think that Ps 36:6 will be our reward when we do what is right, but I’ve been around long enough to know that doesn’t always happen. I don’t think there are any answers or, if there are, they require much pain and heartache to discover.

    Only God can help us grow in any of these three standpoints. It is good to remember that God is more about issues of the heart than about issues of the mind. The core tenets of our faith do not stand or fall on evolution or the historicity of Adam. I may be almost the last person on this planet to agree with YEC, but if I arrive at the pearly gates and am told that I have erred in my thinking, I guess there would be a good explanation (though I cannot imagine in the least what). Indeed, when we arrive at the pearly gates, I don’t think YEC or TE or PC or whatever, or historicity of Adam will be the Shibboleth for entrance into the kingdom of God.
    By Grace we proceed,

  • Preston Garrison

    Bill Dembski is an interesting case study concerning academic freedom. He has the distinction of  having been asked to leave both for being too theologically conservative (from Baylor U.), if I can put it that way – the biology faculty felt threatened by having an IDist on their campus, and for being too liberal (from Southern Baptist Semin.), I believe over espousing an old earth. He was also called on the carpet recently at Southwestern Bapt. Sem. for suggesting that the flood was regional and not universal, but he admitted to publishing rashly and to pondering the subject in some other mode than print in the future. It would be interesting to have his perspective on the subject of academic freedom, but I doubt that he feels free to comment after the recent dustup.
    Of course, seminaries will always be more inclined to be narrow than colleges, having as they do the perception that shaping the views of the next generation of pastor-preachers is much more critical than what goes on in a liberal arts college or university. I have never been to seminary, although I have a strong family connection with one, and my friends who have been seminary students tell me surprising things about what isn’t included in a pastor’s education. I seem to a bit of an oddity in my conviction that a Christian’s progress involves both the rational-deductive world of theology-biblical studies and the empirical business of life, and for some of us, science. If the rational-deductive approach of theology is believed to be the only source of Truth, then the observations, no matter what they the specifics are, will be shoe-horned into the expected pattern, and anyone who doesn’t go along will find themselves wandering the wilderness of U-haul businesses and airline terminals, looking for another promised land.

  • Daniel Lioy

    This is an interesting post and set of exchanges. The sorts of tension points put forward, including those between science and theology, literal vs. historical Adam, the veracity of evolutionary science, and so forth, are ones I’ve been wrestling with for a number of years. In fact, this is one reason why I decided to research and write more at length on the topic, leading to the recent release of my book dealing with the biblical and theological aspects of evolutionary creation (

    So far, two of my part-time employers, Southwestern College (a UMC liberal arts college) and Marylhurst University (a Roman Catholic liberal arts university), have been supportive of my efforts.

  • Scot Sutherland

    I find it hard to separate the Judeo-Christian tradition from any kind of science or academia.  The idea that nature is headed in any particular direction or can be reduced to any kind of fundamental properties comes distinctly out of the Judeo-Christian system of beliefs.  Without it we would have no science or academia.  Even atheism or humanism or any kind of -ism that arises out of western thought presupposes the assumptions of a world that began and continues forward, one of the chief contributions of Judeo-Christian thought.
    Jesus himself proposes something that was revolutionary in his time.  He said, “If you don’t believe the words I say, believe the works I do.”  That sound quite a bit like supporting a theoretical position with empirical evidence.  So I would argue that the definition of academia and scientific inquiry itself depends upon a system of beliefs that grew out of Judeo-Christian thought.
    Disagreement seem to be rooted in which of these assumptions can be challenged, and which are essential.  In the interests of rigor, all academic institutions establish what will be permissible and what will be encouraged.  One of those fundamental tenets seems to be integrity and honesty of inquiry.  It seems that some faculty members follow honest inquiry into territory not supported by the institution.  They can take the path of Galileo and find themselves in jeopardy, or they can follow Bacon and keep their more controversial thoughts to themselves.  I’m not advocating one or the other, but I think the tension is inherent in the very process of learning and inquiry, part of living in the world.
    My father used to say in regards to controversial issues, “Don’t take a position unless you have to make a decision.”  I have found this piece of advice to be quite helpful.

August 2011
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