I was all prepared to write a post about astronomer Martin Gaskell’s lawsuit against the University of Kentucky, but Jesus Creed blogger RJS (a scientist at a major research university) beat me to the punch and stole many of my points. Here’s a quick summary of Gaskell’s case (which is still pending). According to news reports:
- Gaskell was a leading candidate for a new position in UK’s Department of Physics and Astronomy as a director for a public observatory. Gaskell had held a similar position at the University of Nebraska and received high marks for his professional work.
- During the interview process, UK faculty began raising questions about Gaskell’s religious beliefs and his beliefs about evolution and cosmology. These questions were triggered after a faculty member found Gaskell’s personal website and notes from a lecture Gaskell has given several times called Modern Astronomy, the Bible, and Creation.
- Gaskell was not hired by UK, and his lawsuit alleges religious discrimination.
This lawsuit is unusual in a couple of regards. First, it exists. While there have been a couple of other high profile cases in which scientists claim religious discrimination, almost none of them have resulted in a lawsuit. Second, it’s going forward – UK asked for it to be dismissed in November, and a judge rejected that motion. Third, there appears to be a clear paper trail (or email trail, if you please) that reveals internal discussions at UK about Gaskell’s religious beliefs. Gaskell also alleges that the physics department consulted members of the biology department about his religious beliefs, which seems highly irregular to me. Also, if you read the lawsuit, the catalyst for legal action was an equal opportunity complaint filed by a current UK employee who had concerns about this situation. I wonder if that person’s identify will be revealed at some point and what kind of fallout there will be for them.
Like I said, RJS has raised a number of good points already. Instead, I want to ask the question:
How open should you be about your faith?
RJS suggests that the issue was not Gaskell’s faith per se:
From the article it appears that the problem with Dr. Gaskell is not so much his faith – but that he was open and on record about his faith, made some comments that could raise questions. [Emphasis added]
Inspired by this case, last night I began reading Elaine Howard Ecklund’s recent book, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. In one particularly applicable section, Ecklund discusses the desperately need for boundary pioneers — scientists who are willing and able to develop understanding between science and religion. The prototype for this is Francis Collins, but there is a catch: Collins may have this voice only because he is unquestionably one of the leading scientists of our day. Ecklund writes:
It was very telling that both religious and nonreligious scientists talked about how much they disliked evangelicals, yet I could not find a scientist who had anything negative to say about Francis Collins, who speaks openly about reconciling his work as a scientist with his faith commitments as an evangelical Christian. Collins’s respected scientific identify ushers in acceptance of his religious identity. Even his public endorsement of religion is received well by scientists because of his legitimacy within science….That Collins’s faith did not become so public until after his scientific career was in the stratosphere and he had written his New York Times best seller (The Language of God) raises questions about the potential for success of a junior scientist or a less elite scientist engaging in the same sorts of efforts. (47)
Unfortunately, it’s precisely these junior scientists who give us the best hope for reconciling science and religion. Ecklund writes that her research discovered that younger scientists — both religious and nonreligious — are the most open to discussing religion and spirituality. Yet they have the least respected voices.
Elite universities are extremely hierarchical, with the academy generally giving preference in voice to senior scientists — those with the largest labs and the most publications and the richest research grants. But my research finds that it is the younger scientists who are more religiously minded. So when it comes to translating science to a broader believing public, it might be younger scholars who lead the way — suggesting that the effort might also take a while to be realized. (48, emphasis added)
So we’re in quite a bind: we need scientists who can navigate the worlds of both science and religion, yet the most likely candidates are those in the most tenuous positions professionally.
How open should you be about your faith? Feel free to leave a comment below – anonymous comments are welcome as long as you use a valid email (which will never be published). You can also email me if you’d prefer.