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The atheists strike back December 21, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in religion, science.
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There has been a lot of discussion the past couple days about Martin Gaskell, the astronomy professor who is suing University of Kentucky because he believes he was denied a job offer based on his religious beliefs. From the accounts I’ve read, it sounds like they flat-out asked him about his religious beliefs during his interview.

I have to concur with Gaskell: if they did in fact ask about his religious beliefs and his answer was used as a factor in his hiring, that is discriminatory.

The problem, however, is that I can understand why they were doing it: Gaskell’s background led them to question if he was going to misrepresent science through a religious lens. (After the many things I’ve read, it’s a question in my mind, too.) It is wrong to choose someone for a job based on their religion or lack thereof. However, it’s also stupid to hire someone for a position when they may be expected to do something as part of their job when it is likely that they will refuse due to religious issues. That, quite honestly, is an expensive lawsuit waiting to happen, and no one benefits (except the lawyers).

The focus, however, should not be on one’s religious beliefs: it should be on how one intends to do the job. If someone is religious, that shouldn’t factor into the hiring equation unless there is potentially a conflict of interest. The University of Kentucky apparently expected that this was the case. Rather than asking Gaskell about his religious beliefs, they should have asked what would have been a more relevant question: if you were approached by a child who told you that the Earth was 6000 years old but wanted to know what you thought, how would you respond?

If the response is that Gaskell would agree with the child, then I think it’s fair to say that he doesn’t have or is choosing not to utilize their background in science. He is instead choosing to ignore reams of data that show otherwise as well as letting their religious beliefs stand in place of his background knowledge and critical thinking skills. He is letting opinion or belief substitute for an understanding of the evidence. This is not a person you want to hire to do scientific work.

I don’t believe one should use religion as a criterion for hiring. On the other hand, I do believe that it is fair to expect that a candidate will uphold a standard of scientific integrity when the job is fundamentally that of a scientist. I think it is fair to ask how that person intends to uphold that standard. Because of the attacks on scientific integrity by the religious right, I think there has been a lot of anxiety about religion’s potential conflict with science. Scientists need to stay rational, however, and remember that religion isn’t the enemy: ignorance is.

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Comments»

1. Charles J Gervasi - December 21, 2010

I agree with you completely. If the job is against someone’s religion, they’re right to discriminate. It would be like a bank hiring someone whose religion (e.g. some strict interpretations of Islam) says it’s absolutely immoral to pay or receive interest.

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mareserinitatis - December 22, 2010

Another situation is a company hiring a pharmacist. There are several Catholic pharmacists who refuse to fill birth control prescriptions. I think it’s reasonable that a company ask if a potential pharmacist has issues filling any prescriptions.

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2. Fluxor - December 22, 2010

From the link, it says that Dr. Gaskell “has taken pains to point out that he is not a creationist and he does not have any problems with the theory of evolution.”

Not all Christians are young earth creationist. Not even evangelicals. To tie the hiring decision of Gaskell on the perception of his religious beliefs is outright bigotry. They can just ask him outright — what do you think of evolution? What’s your estimate of the earth’s age? Straightforward questions. Gets right to the heart of the concern.

It’s a dangerous game we play when we start to make hiring decision based on our perceptions of someone’s beliefs. If there are specific issues that one is concerned about (e.g. paying interest), ask those specific question. No religious inference is necessary. Else, why not just deny all Muslims a job, because they’re all terrorists, right?

All that to say that I basically agree with Cherish. Leave religion out of the hiring criteria.

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mareserinitatis - December 22, 2010

If you read the comments on the post to which I linked, there is some evidence that Gaskell may have not always had a good understanding of evolution as a scientific principle. I can see this raising red flags, but I still think that it needs to be handled better than it was. You’re right – religion shouldn’t be the focus.

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3. Luke Holzmann - December 22, 2010

Good points.

Here’s what’s pinging the back of my mind, which probably doesn’t mean as much to you as it’s a bit off topic, but you got me thinking [smile]: Some members of the “religious right” associate Young Earth Creationism with their religious beliefs. That was certainly true of me for many years. And so, it would make sense–with that worldview–to say that denying a job based on a different assumption of how the world works would be religious discrimination… even if they asked the kinds of questions you propose. And this could be why so many “religious righters” then extend the label of “worldview” onto evolution. [Not to say that evolution hasn’t affected our worldview.] In other words, as long as YEC is equated with Christianity, we’re going to have this problem.

Far better, in my mind, is for Christians to learn as much as they can about this subject–especially if they are going to be teaching science–so they can present all the facts and assumptions as they currently stand and, perhaps, even postulate what the future of these areas of study will bring.

I’ve had Sunday School students ask about the age of the earth. I love giving them the answer, “Well, there are several views on this. Some people believe the earth is 6,000 years old, this is based primarily on a guy who added up the ages of the people in the Bible’s genealogies…” and talk through the various assumptions and presuppositions and information backing each view has. That’s how I’d answer the question you propose.

And I probably wouldn’t get hired [smile].

But that’s okay. I’m not trying to go into that field. It’s far too convoluted for me. Perhaps someday I’ll have a better grasp on it, but for now I don’t have the time necessary to learn about everything involved. I merely glean little bits here and there.

~Luke

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mareserinitatis - December 22, 2010

This may just be my opinion, but you’re not that far off in your answer from what I envisioned. It was something along the line of, “Some people believe that it’s 6000 years old because of Biblically-based estimates. Geologists, however, have studied rocks from the Earth and meteorites that indicate our solar system is at least 5 billion years old. And astronomers believe the entire universe is 14 billion years old because that’s how long it takes light from the earliest time in the universe to reach telescopes on Earth.”

I guess my personal opinion is that, in a position dealing with the public, most of whom are going to be religious to some extent, you want to have a person who can not only explain the scientific way of learning about the universe but be sensitive to the fact that there are people out there who don’t understand it, may not have been exposed to it, and may even be somewhat afraid of it.

I completely agree that people who are YEC are going to see this as discrimination. I really don’t know what to say to them other than they’re wrong. (How’s that for chucking relativism out the door?) Science is a process of examining evidence to find conclusions about physical processes whereas religion is a way to understand your place in the universe. (I guess I really don’t understand how people can take something that is supposed to be a guide to spirituality and try to make it explain things external to the self.) If someone chooses to substitute one for the other, I don’t know of any way to convince them that they’re barking up the wrong tree. And after the Dover trial, I’m guessing a lot of courts will agree.

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