Field of Science

The trouble with trying to get religious students to think

The American Center for Law and Justice recently claimed to have championed the rights of a religious student who was being persecuted by professor.

But the Center for Inquiry has another version of the story. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has recently boasted of a "victory" in protecting a college student's rights to religious freedom. In postings on its website and in a radio broadcast on June 4, 2008, the ACLJ has trumpeted the claim that a demand letter one of its staff attorneys sent to Suffolk County Community College prevented a Christian student from receiving a failing grade from a professor who wanted to penalize her because of her religious beliefs.

The CfI says nothing could be further from the truth. "The ACLJ's spurious claim of a legal 'victory' is just slightly less outrageous than its brazen attempt to intimidate a philosophy professor from doing his job—which is to get students to think critically," commented Ronald A. Lindsay, Executive Director of the Council of Secular Humanism, who has talked to the allegedly biased professor. "As far as I can tell," observed Lindsay, "the ACLJ's letter accomplished nothing other than providing an excuse for soliciting donations."

The scholar that the ACLJ falsely accused of bias is a longtime philosophy professor who has taught more than 13,000 students over a period of thirty-six years. He has a well-deserved reputation for fairness, and has served as President of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers and as an officer in many other organizations. Although the ACLJ's radio broadcast alleged that the professor "hates" the very idea of Christians, this professor has taught students of many different faiths, and no faith, over the years, all without incident until the ACLJ's campaign of vilification. Indeed, after the ACLJ made its baseless accusations, students in this professor's philosophy class, including religious students, defended him, stating that he does not pass judgment on students because of their beliefs, but simply challenges them to examine all beliefs critically, including their own. His students have stated that they cannot identify the professor's own views based either on the course materials or the textbook authored for the class by the professor, and he does not pressure them to adopt any particular position.
"I would not be doing my job as a philosophy professor," explained the professor, "if I did not require students to think about their beliefs and provide reasons in support of their beliefs— not my beliefs or anyone else's beliefs. Critical examination of beliefs, including one's own beliefs, and training in reasoning are among the primary objectives of a philosophy course, and of a liberal education in general. Only professors who are negligent or indifferent allow students to earn good grades simply by providing as a reason for an assertion 'well, this is what I believe'."
The professor will not discuss in detail his interaction with the student who complained to the ACLJ about him, because he does not believe it is appropriate to share the details of a student's coursework with the outside world. However, he does have a right to defend himself against false accusations. The core of the ACLJ's claim is that the student was in danger of failing the class because of the professor's religious bias before the ACLJ intervened. "That claim is preposterous," according to Pecorino. "At no time did I tell her she was in danger of failing. When I had to project a grade for her earlier in the semester, I projected a 'C' and that was when she was most resistant to providing any reasoning to support her assertions. She was not open to examining her own beliefs or to entering into the dialectical process of inquiry in community because, according to her, she already had all the answers." And what of the ACLJ's claim that the student had a failing grade average of 54 prior to the ACLJ's intervention? "That is a misleading use of information. I use a cumulative point system in grading," explained the professor. "In other words, as students progress during the semester, they earn points for each assignment, with a possible total of 100 points by the end of the semester. She at one point probably did have 54 points, but that in no way indicates she was in danger of failing. She had 54 points, not a failing grade average of 54. All students start the semester with 0 points, so by the ACLJ's logic, all students are in danger of failing."

And did the ACLJ's letter influence the professor, either directly or indirectly through pressure from college administrators? "Absolutely not," the professor states. "I received no pressure form my college administrators, only support, and although I was a bit bothered by all the hate emails and other communications that resulted from the ACLJ's campaign against me, I did not let that affect my grading of this student. I take my responsibilities as an educator too seriously for that to happen. The student received a 'B' because she earned a 'B,' no more and no less."
The ACLJ's campaign against this professor cannot be dismissed as insignificant. As the professor observes, "Essentially, the ACLJ is claiming a religious exemption from the obligation of students in public colleges to engage in critical thinking, and this claim strikes at the core of higher education. If permitted to go unchallenged, this claim will weaken our democratic and pluralistic society." Lindsay agrees, adding, "For a democracy to succeed, we need citizens who can provide reasons to support their beliefs. We cannot reason together if all we have are groups of individuals who adamantly insist they have all the answers because of some supernatural revelation and who are unwilling to consider opposing viewpoints. The ACLJ is a very slick, very well-funded organization, and its animosity toward critical thinking is even more troubling than its willingness to distort the facts."

We’ve all had students like this. Only a couple of years ago I had a student in a senior seminar class, a “capstone experience” for biology majors who refused to discuss or even justify their positions or opinions. I had “no right to pass judgment”. Of course I wasn’t passing judgment, I was trying to get students to think and support their positions in a manner scientific. Now that was the catch. It just doesn’t cut much mustard to tell me that human life begins at the moment of conception because the Bible says so (and it doesn’t). Their complaint about my bias against their religious perspective went no further than a dean of undergraduate studies who decided is was perfectly OK that a professor of science would ask science majors to justify positions in a scientific manner. Even then I was not requiring anyone to argue for any particular positions, but interestingly enough, all of the biology majors changed their initial ideas about the beginning of human life, not all in the same way, as they learned more, thought more, and gained more knowledge. Only one student dogmatically stuck to their initial position no matter what; they remained unfazed by new information and new ideas. And if such people are actually model citizens, then demoncracy is indeed in trouble should they ever gain a majority.

And it again brings up the idea that I have blogged about before that religious thinking interferes with learning. I was greatly relieved to learn that this student was not a biology major, but had gotten into the class via some strange non-major major. After this experience I investigated this non-major major and ultimately was instrumental in killing this academic monster.

Of course in this specific instance the Catholic Church jumped on the idea of conception as the beginning of human life because of they wanted a fixed point at which to say an individual with a soul existed. The logical inconsistencies that have arisen as science has moved on are causing all manner of problems unless the faithful just continue to believe. Religion and science may coexist, but dogmatism and science can never coexist.


Unknown said...

Splendid summary. I also received the CFI article, and on subsequent Googling was struck by the contrast between it and this one from the opposing perspective. I must say I'm very much on the side of "critical thinking" -- but the variety of perspectives on the issue tell me that I wasn't there, and none of us browsing netizens can really tell for certain if there was any unfairness in the situation, since the ACLJ and CFI seem to report only the convenient facts.

Unknown said...

Just thought I'd post a follow-up real quick, having quoted you in my blog post here.

Happy musings!

Anonymous said...

Concerning my approach to Education and the use of reason and the development of critical thinking anyone can read about it in my "The Ethics of Changing Habits of Mind" (2005) by Philip A. Pecorino at
Information (assignments, grading system, textbook, etc..) about the course involved in this incident is available through this site:
Anyone can look at the evidence and reach their own well reasoned conclusions.

The Phytophactor said...

I'd like to thank Prof. Pecorino for providing this information. I left his identity out of the post since I didn't ask permission to post the CFI missive, but then told everyone where to find the information so he becomes exposed anyways.

Anonymous said...

"And it again brings up the idea that I have blogged about before that religious thinking interferes with learning."

Absolutely. Life in America would be so much easier without that accursed First Amendment, wouldn't it?

The Phytophactor said...

Nothing in the 1st amendment protects you from discomforting situations or criticism that result from your religious beliefs.

Unknown said...