How open should you be about your faith?

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.

You can also read the AP story, the lawsuit itself (PDF), and a blog post from the Chronicle.

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.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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6 Comments

  • Katelin108@gmail.com'
    Katelin commented on December 21, 2010 Reply

    I am very selective about what I say and when.

    I do not feel the need to post anonymously here,
    but went to an ESN lunch on a work day, I was careful not to tell anyone in the lab where i was going (just said it was a lunch seminar). This includes a Christian lab-mate.

    when I join colleagues for a social dinner and some will make snide remarks about faith or prayer, sometimes i feel comfortable enough to gently retort “hey, I happen to be one of those praying idiots!” Other times I keep quite…usually when I feel the criticism leveled at the church was justified and I have no defense for it.

    I wonder as the next generation of scientists mature, how the use of public social sites like facebook that will affect us. We all know facebook profiles are now used in many fields to screen job candidates. Should I remove the statements of faith and bible verses on mine?

    Everyone puts there trust and faith in something, even if it is the lack of something. To some extent, it is a matter of which faiths are socially acceptable and which ones are not. Mine is clearly not in certain circles. But then again, I feel this negative reception is an inevitable consequence of the corporates sins of often intolerant church.

    • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
      Micheal Hickerson commented on December 21, 2010 Reply

      Thanks for sharing, Katelin. Excellent point about social networking sites – one of the interesting things here is that Gaskell’s talk on Genesis was found by an Internet search, and a UK staff member expressed concern about what kinds of links he would post on the departmental website.

      One of our ESN mentors once told me that he tries to keep information about his faith offline – not because he cares that colleagues know that he’s a Christian (he’s fairly open about his faith on campus and in his department), but because he doesn’t want that to be the ONLY thing someone knows or the first thing they find out about him, removed from the context of who he is, how he works, what he researches, etc.

      You’re also right about socially acceptable faiths. That’s one of the points that Ecklund makes as well. Certain religious beliefs and practices are simply more welcomed than others among academic scientists.

      I’ll do at least one more post about Ecklund’s book. She has a couple of very illuminating sections about the language of religion among scientists, both of which are relevant to Gaskell’s case.

  • Kevin Birth commented on December 21, 2010 Reply

    I guess its a matter of what one is talking about. Criticizing a cherished theory in another discipline is always asking for trouble, and to add a dimension of faith to such a criticism only throws gasoline on the fire.

    Being open with colleagues is not a problem for me anymore (it used to be), but I’m still struggling with the limits of what I can say and do in the classroom at a public university. Interestingly, in one of my large intro classes last semester I mentioned that I was a Christian, and there was no reaction. I mean absolutely NO reaction. I’m not sure the students even remember my saying it.

    • mikehickerson@gmail.com'
      Micheal Hickerson commented on December 22, 2010 Reply

      Thanks, Kevin. Great point about the dangers in criticizing another discipline. Gaskell has publicly stated his belief in evolution, but saying that there are “problems with evolution” can be interpreted in so many different ways depending on the context. Stephen Jay Gould made his career exploring the “problems with evolution” – but he was an evolutionary biologist whose religious views were relatively safe within the academy. When Ken Ham (a young-earth creationist) says there are “problems with evolution,” it’s a direct attack on the theory and the entire enterprise of academic biology.

      I think Gaskell meant his comment to be closer to Gould’s position on “problems with evolution” – meaning “problems to be solved by scientists working within the discipline” – but the context (as a religious conservative whose views on evolution were under examination) made him seem more like Ken Ham.

      If I write more on this situation, I may look at the indirect role that Ken Ham and his organization – Answers in Genesis – play in Gaskell’s case. AiG is very well-known in Kentucky, and it’s apparent from the court records that AiG’s young-earth creationism affected how some at UK viewed Gaskell’s religious beliefs.

  • timgilmour@psu.edu'
    Tim commented on January 7, 2011 Reply

    I think we should be as at least as open as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego about our faith… (unafraid to continue in politically-incorrect ramifications of belief in the God of the Bible)… and in some situations, as open as John the Baptist.
    Jesus was the perfect example… sometimes teaching openly in the temple itself and clearly claiming “I AM”, other times giving indirect answers or keeping a low profile.

    • Tom Grosh IV commented on January 10, 2011 Reply

      Amen! Thank-you for sharing Tim. Praying for you today.

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