Monday, November 28, 2005

Rejecting I.D.

I enjoy reading Chris Heard’s blog (blogs, actually: he has a D&D blog in addition to Higgaion), even when in disagreement. Today he targets one Paul Mirecki, chair of the Religious Department at University of Kansas, who has recently gloated over the fact that he’s teaching creationism where it belongs -- in a mythology course. Mirecki is reported as saying:

"The fundies want it all taught in a science class, but this will be a nice slap in their big fat face by teaching it as a religious studies class under the category 'mythology.'"

Chris believes, however, that Mirecki’s "motives and comments" are "out of bounds for an academic proposing a course", though I can't understand why. Mirecki’s remarks may be a bit petty, and so I thought it was perhaps their tone which irked Chris more than anything else. But Chris went on:

"Mirecki has become (by his own words) a living caricature: the atheistic religious studies professor out to destroy students' faith."

According to the article Chris cites, however, Mirecki’s comment may have been taken out of context -- addressed as it was to a closed listserve -- and seems to have been directed toward the religious right's particular agenda regarding the teaching of ID/creationism as if it were science. I seriously doubt Mirecki is out to "destroy anyone’s faith" in general.

Chris concludes:

"It bothers me as a professor that Mirecki's stated agenda for his course is anti-religious, and it bothers me as a believer because I have deep religious reasons for rejecting creationism and ID."

But, as I mentioned on Chris' blog (in comments), this is like saying that one has religious reasons for rejecting the idea that the sun revolves around the earth. One may just as easily have religious reasons for accepting such an idea -- or indeed, as many do, ID.


Blogger Roger Pearse said...

I must admit that I am a little baffled at how comfortable some people are with what Mirecki is said to have done. Since I live in England, I know nothing about this other than what I read on the internet, of course. But it all sounds a bit strange.

The reports I have read say that Dr Mirecki chose to create a set of lectures as part of a degree course at Kansas University to study "Intelligent Design," (whatever that may be: my information is based only on other people's posts about Mirecki) using his powers as head of department of Religious Studies. Since he is not a scientist, is he qualified to teach on this subject? I gather that it has come to light that his sole motive for this action was intentionally to give widespread public offence, and to attack other political or religious groups in the state. He also associated the department and the university with his actions.

All this sounds truly terrible to me. What responsible scholar will make his own discipline stink in the nostrils of the general public? Worse yet, if I understand it: he was responding directly and publicly to actions in the local legislature. Is picking quarrels on politics or religion with local politicians what academics are paid for?

I have always imagined that academics are funded by the general taxpayer in order to study objectively in their field. This gives their statements within their discipline a certain authority, depending on the degree of scientific precision possible. Thus physicists rank higher in public esteem than sociologists, for instance.

But if an academic should abuse his position to create a fake course, does this not attack the integrity of the academy? To misuse this aura of authority for no other purpose than political or religious spite -- will this not diminish the authority of all academics everywhere? Had the course gone ahead, wouldn't the degrees of all who attended the university been tainted, since their degrees were awarded in part for a course devoid of academic value?

Does this not also affect those passing through this department? After all, once it is understood that credits at KU could be awarded for ideological rather than academic reasons, how do those from such a university stand in the eyes of others? Yet don't we all want the highest possible standards of objectivity and integrity, the best reputation for our discipline?

Of course the physical attack on Dr Mirecki must be condemned, if the facts are as he has represented them. But the damage to the reputation of scholarship seems to me to be more serious. It is a very serious matter when a professional scholar sets out to make scholarship stink in the nostrils of the general public. Should the public be influenced to think 'religious studies' merely a pretext for a hate creed? If so, do we think that public will or should continue to pay for this?

Now I know that most people will decide whether they agree with or oppose Mirecki on non-academic grounds. He has intervened in a matter on which almost everyone has strong feelings, after all! But I would ask that we leave that aside. Imagine it was a dispute about tiddlywinks or something -- is what he did acceptable? From the point of view of the interests of scholarship and the promotion of learning, his actions seem most damaging. Fortunately he chose to insult those who could answer back -- and the Kansas legislators are now asking what is wrong in KU. This will limit the damage in the public eye, by showing that a scholar who does wrong is accountable. But surely it should never come to this?

Probably I have the wrong end of the stick entirely. No doubt matters have not been correctly represented in the press in various degrees. But... it seems to me that unless this is totally wrong, then Paul Mirecki has done something truly unprofessional, for dreadful, dreadful reasons.

Should we all perhaps consider again whether the interests of scholarship and of those who love learning, are well served by defending such disreputable actions? There is no issue of academic freedom here:
not unless academics are to be permitted to misbehave with impunity. My own views count for nothing, it is true. But... should scholars use their positions to insult the public? Really?


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