The Inquisition Strikes Very Close to Home

Dr. Eric Hedin, a professor who is vehemently suspected of heresy

Dr. Eric Hedin is an Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Ball State University. He has 38 peer-reviewed publications to his credit in such diverse fields as integrated optics, electromagnetic theory, and nanoscience. He has also been put on notice by the Inquisition, because he is vehemently suspected of heresy. Why? He teaches a course called “The Boundaries of Science,” which seems to come from a (gasp!) Intelligent Design point of view.

There are actually two versions of the course: Astronomy 151 and Honors 296, the latter of which is one of three courses a student can use to fulfill his or her science requirement in the Ball State University honors college. The honors course description, which is similar to (but not the same as) that of the non-honors course, says:

In this course, we will examine the nature of the physical and the living world with the goal of increasing our appreciation of the scope, wonder, and complexity of physical reality. We will also investigate physical reality and the boundaries of science for any hidden wisdom within this reality which may illuminate the central questions of the purpose of our existence and the meaning of life.

That sounds like a very interesting course to me. In perusing the bibliography of the non-honors version of the course, I see that it includes intelligent design advocates, such as Dr. Michael Behe and Dr. William Dembski. However, it also includes opponents of intelligent design such as Dr. Charles Wynn and Dr. Hubert Yockey. In addition, there are theistic evolutionists such as Dr. Paul Davies and old-earth creationists such as Dr. Hugh Ross. There are several Christians on the list, including Dr. John Lennox, but there is also at least one atheist (Dr. Roger Penrose) and one person of the Jewish faith (Dr. Gerald Schroeder). There are also several whose religious persuasions don’t seem evident from their writings, such as Dr. Michael Seeds and Hans Christian Von Baeyer. Is it a balanced list? No. It is weighted towards Christianity and intelligent design. Nevertheless, most views that exist among scientists seem to be represented.

So what’s the problem? The Inquisition has decided that the course smells of heresy.

Dr. Jerry Coyne wrote a blog post stating that Dr. Hedin is teaching “…a course in accommodationism and Christian religion, with very little science.” He was so infuriated that a physics professor would dare challenge the Atheistic Orthodoxy that he is trying to enforce, Dr. Coyne wrote a letter to Dr. Hedin’s department chair. To Dr. Coyne’s amazement, the department head was very supportive of the course, and he also made it clear that the dean and associate dean of the Honors College were both aware of the course’s content.

Rather than accepting the judgement of those who actually know what is being taught in the course and who are familiar with Dr. Hedin’s teaching methods, Dr. Coyne decided it was time to bring in the Inquisition. In his own words:

This will now go to the lawyers.

Andrew L. Seidel, a staff attorney at the Freedom from Religion Foundation wrote a letter to Ball State University, stating that the class is not an honest investigation of the intersection between science and religion, that it poses serious legal issues for Ball State University, and that it damages the university’s reputation. As as result, Ball State University says:

The university received a complaint from a third party late yesterday afternoon about content in a specific course offered at Ball State. We take academic rigor and academic integrity very seriously. Having just received these concerns, it is impossible to comment on them at this point. We will explore in depth the issues and concerns raised and take the appropriate actions through our established processes and procedures.

I was on the faculty at Ball State University for many years, and I found it to be a fairly open place for academic inquiry. The chemistry department was particularly closed-minded, but the university as a whole seemed open to a serious discussion of all issues, including those related to religion. I do hope that the threats made by the Inquisition do not cause that to change. I have no idea what is taught in Dr. Hedin’s class, but I suspect that it pales in comparison to what is taught by many atheist professors in their classes. As a result, I would hate to see Ball State University cancel this class or remove Dr. Hedin simply because it is being pressured by one of the High Priests of atheism. I encourage my readers to sign a petition in support of Dr. Hedin:

http://www.academicfreedompetition.com/

Not surprisingly, I have already signed it.

Before I finish this post, I want to point out that this course has caused a schism in the Church of Atheism. While High Priest Dr. Jerry Coyne considers this something that must be stopped, other High Priests (such as Dr. Larry Moran and Dr. P.Z. Myers) disagree. They both think the course is mostly nonsense, but they don’t think it is something that should be stopped from the outside. Dr. Myers (my favorite atheist) says it best:

… academic freedom is the issue here, and professors have to have the right to teach unpopular, controversial issues, even from an ignorant perspective.

I wholeheartedly agree. I would never support trying to get a university to stop offering a course on atheism, regardless of how abysmal the bibliography or how nonsensical the professor. A university should be a place where all ideas are discussed openly and honestly in an effort to find the truth.

There is no room for the Inquisition on a university campus.

13 Comments

  1. Bianca says:

    I signed the petition. Thanks for this post! (and all the others :))

  2. Keith says:

    I hesitate to make a judgement about this issue, simply because I have never taken Dr. Hedin’s course. If only Dr. Coyne had the same attitude! You’re right, Dr. Wile; any decisions about the appropriateness of Dr. Hedin’s course should be left up to those “who actually know what is being taught in the course and who are familiar with Dr. Hedin’s teaching methods.”

  3. S.J. says:

    I did too. Glad to see some non-creationists are concerned about the implications for free speech in the university.

  4. GregM says:

    Scientific revolutions don’t just happen in history books. How exciting to be living in the middle of one!

  5. Jacob H says:

    I have a problem with Christian content and Christian-science being taught in a purely scientific course. If it were a religion course or a religion-science course, I would be completely okay with it.

    The fact is, science and religion are two different ways of viewing the world. Science is empiricism and epistemology whereas religion is faith and spirituality. The two do not have co-aligning methodologies.

    Indeed, it seems blasphemous to tie God down to science.

    1. jlwile says:

      Jacob, if you really believe that, then you must have a problem with the works of Andreas Vesalius, Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, and James Clerk Maxwell, just to name a few. All of these great scientists (and many, many more) taught Christian content right along with their science. That’s because to them, science is yet another way to learn about the Creator. As James Joule, the brilliant scientist whose work on energy resulted in the SI unit of energy being named after him, wrote:

      After knowledge of, and obedience to, the will of God, the next aim must be to know something of His attributes of wisdom power and goodness as evidenced by His handiwork. It is evident that an acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed. [Clifford Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking:Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them, Oxford University Press 2008, p. 306]

      You are correct that science and religion have different methodologies, but that doesn’t mean they do not relate. After all, they are both sometimes used in an attempt to find answers to the same questions. Thus, they must relate on some level.

      I don’t think anyone in the creationist or ID movements is trying to “tie God down to science.” However, they are trying to use science to learn more about God and His creation, just as many of the great scientists of the past did.

  6. Jacob H says:

    Sure, if you believe God created the universe, physics is an attempt to study his creation.

    But I find it funny that all of the scientists you listed were 17th and 18th century, back when religion permeated every facet of life.

    When Einstein developed his field equations, was he driven by God? No. When David Bohm characterized quantum as a deterministic, nonlocal theory, was he driven by trying to find out more about God? No. Science and its field have changed radically since Newton’s time (you know why there are “7” colors instead of six? Because Newton added in Indigo because 7 was more divine than 6.).

    Trying to say religion has a place alongside science nowadays by citing some famous theistic scientists is disingenuous, because I can cite just as many atheistic scientists.

    Theistic scientists have made great contributions to the field of science. Lemaitre is one of my favorite scientists! But to say that science and religion still belong together…that’s not right at all.

    //After all, they are both sometimes used in an attempt to find answers to the same questions. Thus, they must relate on some level.//

    Well, no. Religion taught us that the universe was created in six days. By God, who just poofed us into existence. Modern cosmology doesn’t agree with that at all, no matter how hard you try to retcon Genesis into being a “metaphor for the big bang.”

    //I don’t think anyone in the creationist or ID movement is trying to “tie God down to science.”//

    If you try to explain God using logic and science, you are tying him down. Saying he has to obey our finite rules and laws. That seems incredibly blasphemous. God is infinite, no? No finite system can describe an infinite one.

    1. jlwile says:

      Jacob, you need to bone up on your history of science. James Clerk Maxwell was a 19th-century scientist, as was James Joule. If you want a modern example, let’s use Dr. Henry F. Schaefer III, the Graham Perdue Professor of Chemistry and Director of the Center for Computational Quantum Chemistry at the University of Georgia. He says:

      The significance and joy in my science comes in those occasional moments of discovering something new and saying to myself, ‘So that’s how God did it.’ My goal is to understand a little corner of God’s plan. [John Clayton, The Source, Howard Publishing 2001, p. 214]

      And no, it is not disingenuous to cite theistic scientists to show that religion has a place alongside science. It clearly does for those scientists, and their science is not hampered by the relationship. In my mind, it is actually improved.

      You claim that modern cosmology doesn’t agree with religion at all, but it clearly does. Modern cosmology tells us that the universe had a beginning, a conclusion that naturalists fought for a long, long time. Religion has always taught that the universe had a beginning. Modern cosmology might not agree in detail with certain interpretations of the Scriptures, but that could be the result of either the interpretations being wrong or some of the details of modern cosmology being wrong.

      Once again, I don’t think anyone in the ID or creationist movements is trying to “explain God using logic and science.” They are simply trying to use science to study His creation so as to learn more about Him. As James Joule said in the quote I gave previously, there are two facets: (1) “knowledge of, and obedience to, the will of God” and (2) learning “something of His attributes of wisdom power and goodness as evidenced by His handiwork.” Number 1 comes from Scripture, and number 2 comes from science. Both help us to understand God better.

  7. Jacob H says:

    Oops, 1800s. My bad. Still, a time when religion was everywhere. My point stands.

    Yes, that Director is a brilliant man. Probably smarter than both of us put together. But for every brilliant theist you find, I can find two atheists. Does this prove atheism begets better science? Absolutely not. So why would you say the converse applies?

    My original point — religion has no place in a science *class*. If the professor wants to be the most devout Christian in the world, he can. On his own time. I would’ve been pissed if my quantum professor had spent his time telling me about Intelligent Design instead of solving the wave equation. And I’m a Christian!

    I agree that science helps to understand God. I would probably be an atheist by now had I not decided to go into astrophysics. But that doesn’t mean I condone people teaching religion in a science setting.

    I have honestly never seen a more group more intent on pushing their beliefs on anyone else as theists. It doesn’t seem right to me. It’s not an inquisition. We live in Jesus country. You don’t have to worry about being shot when you step out of the door. That’s persecution. Jesus was persecuted. This is just people asking you to keep your religion separate from your science.

    1. jlwile says:

      Once again, Jacob, you need to bone up on your history. Religion was not “everywhere” in the 19th century. In fact, guess when the idea that religion and science are in conflict was popularized? It was in the 19th century, when John William Draper wrote History of the Conflict between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White wrote History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Of course, serious historical scholarship has shown that both books were wrong, but the point is that religion wasn’t “everywhere” in the 19th century. There were many who, like you, thought it had no place in science. So no, your point doesn’t stand. If you want to talk about history, you need to learn about it first.

      Quoting accomplished scientists who specifically say that their religion is tied to their science doesn’t prove that theists do better science. I never claimed it did. What I claimed, and what is clearly true, is that quoting such scientists shows it is wrong to think (as you claimed) that science has no place in religion. For many accomplished scientists, it clearly does. Now I do think theists produce better science, because they start from a more rational worldview. However, I never claimed that quoting theistic scientists demonstrates this.

      I have no problem with religion in a science class, because I take academic freedom seriously. The point of a university is to provide open discussion of the ideas that confront students. If a professor is really qualified to teach at a university, he or she should be given the academic freedom to teach what he or she thinks is important. There are those, like Dr. Coyne, who care more about enforcing orthodoxy than they care about academic freedom. That’s why it’s very appropriate to call this the Inquisition. Also, since science and religion often attempt to answer the same questions, it only makes sense that when those questions are raised in any class, science or otherwise, it is legitimate to talk about both approaches. That’s clearly the case in the class taught by Dr. Hedin, so I have no problem with Dr. Hedin bringing up religion in a science class.

      I am not sure I agree with you that theists are intent on “pushing their beliefs” on others. When I was at university, my atheist professors were very evangelistic about their atheism in my science classes. However, I never heard about theism in class from my theist professors. In the same way, I don’t know of any theists who are suing universities in order to get atheists to stop pushing atheism in their science classes. However, an atheist professor is resorting to a lawsuit in order to get a theist to stop pushing intelligent design. In my view, it is the atheists who are intent on pushing their beliefs on others in the classroom.

  8. Keith says:

    Jacob, I find it very odd that you would say “No finite system can describe an infinite one”. If we, being finite, can not describe anything infinite, how can we call it infinite? Have we not just described one property of it?

    Furthermore, I find it very odd that you would hold this belief and also claim to be a Christian. By your own reasoning, you would find the statement “God exists”, uttered by any human, to be blasphemous, since it involves a finite creature describing a property of the infinite God.

    The fact of the matter is that Christianity involves the infinite God stepping down into finitude to communicate with his creatures. Jesus himself lived on earth for a finite period of time and traveled over a limited geographical area -and yet was also God. In light of this, I think you need to rethink this idea that a finite system cannot describe an infinite one. Jesus has already demonstrated otherwise.

  9. Amy Peterson says:

    I guess this conversation has been over for a week, but I can’t help recommending Nancy Pearcey’s book “The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy” for an overview of the philosophical underpinnings of science throughout history.

    1. jlwile says:

      Thanks for the recommendation, Amy.