What's God Got to Do With It?

To what extent should a scientist's personal religious or philosophical views affect his or her chances of being hired as a professor? The question has arisen before. In 2010, for example, physicist Martin Gaskell sued the University of Kentucky in Lexington for religious discrimination. He alleged that the university did not hire him as director of its observatory because, according to an initially confidential e-mail by a member of the search committee that later became public, Christian beliefs that Gaskell expressed in nonacademic lectures and articles made him "potentially evangelical." After a judge ruled that the suit could go to trial because of "substantial evidence that Gaskell was the leading candidate," the university reached a settlement with Gaskell for $125,000 in compensation for lost income.

Now the issue has arisen again, as reported in Inside Higher Ed. This time, however, it's not about a scientist who has expressed religious views being rejected for a job; rather, it's because he has been hired. In June, Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, offered a position to astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez. Ordinarily, bringing aboard a scientist who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Washington, did a postdoc at the University of Texas, Austin, published numerous peer-reviewed papers, and coauthored a textbook published by Cambridge University Press would not inspire dispute.

Gonzalez, however, is also co-author of a book entitled The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos is Designed for Discovery.  In the book, he and theologian Jay Richards argue, according to the book's Web site, that "the universe is not 'pointless' (Steven Weinberg), Earth merely 'a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,' (Carl Sagan) and human existence 'just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents' (Steven Weinberg). On the contrary, the evidence we can uncover from our Earthly home points to a universe that is designed for life, and designed for discovery."

For reasons that are in dispute, before he joined Ball State University Gonzalez failed to receive tenure at Iowa State University in Ames. "Iowa State has said that Gonzalez's tenure denial, and the vote to uphold that denial following his appeal, was based on his academic record," Inside Higher Ed reports. "Gregory Geoffroy, then president, said in a statement at the time that details of personnel decisions are private, but that he had based his ultimate decision about Gonzalez's appeal on such factors as his publication record, his ability to attract grants and the number of graduate students he observed." But, the article adds, "at the same time, Gonzalez's supporters say he's a distinguished scholar who was denied tenure by Iowa State University in 2007 due to political pressures, and that they'll be watching to see he gets a fair shot this time around."

The issue of mixing science and religion is particularly sensitive at Ball State at the moment because the university is investigating accusations that a course by another astronomer professor, Eric Hedin, "has crossed a line from being about science to being about Christianity," according to an earlier article in Inside Higher Ed.

No one has accused Gonzalez of teaching anything other than mainstream science in his courses at Iowa State, or at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, where he previously was an associate professor. He has assured Ball State that the same will be true in his new position, according to Inside Higher Ed. Nor is the idea unique to Gonzalez that a creator designed the laws of science to produce, on planet Earth, a species capable of doing science. It is in fact quite common among scientists who are believing Christians. Prominent researchers who have written books expounding versions of this view include Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy at Harvard University and author of God's Universe, and Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health and author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. The question of how the laws of nature came into being and whether they express the intention or purposes of a creator are not questions that science can answer, these books argue. Regardless of a scientist's view on their origin, they say, discovering the laws of nature requires the same scientific methods and techniques whether the researcher is a devout religious believer or an atheist.

At Ball State, through the involvement of "First Amendment watchdogs," Gonzalez's "lectures and writings will be subject to scrutiny throughout his probationary period lest unscientific views be presented as fact in science courses," Inside Higher Ed notes. Gonzalez's critics concede that "the university was within its rights in hiring Guillermo Gonzalez."

The First Amendment's religious provisions, after all, cut two ways. As a publicly supported institution and a reputable university, Ball State cannot countenance religious teachings being presented as science. But, as a governmental institution, neither can it limit its faculty's free exercise of religion or their right to express or publish their properly labeled personal views.

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