Atheist discrimination? Astronomer says he was denied a job because of religion
    By Hank Campbell | December 17th 2010 02:07 PM | 22 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Hank

    I'm the founder of Science 2.0®.

    A wise man once said Darwin had the greatest idea anyone ever had. Others may prefer Newton or Archimedes...

    View Hank's Profile
    Martin Gaskell did not get a job as the director of a new student observatory at the University of Kentucky and says he thinks his religion is behind it.

    So for all those who say academia is too politically correct, take heart - if this is true, academics can be bigots just like anyone else, at least as long as it's a Christian being denied rights.

    One member of the hiring board described his qualifications as "breathtakingly above the other applicants" but there are lots of things that go into hiring so that can't be the only factor and if it turns out to be other issues, that is okay.  Yet it looks bad, since apparently others worried his being a Christian would conflict with his science.

    In that sort of militant atheist climate, even an outstanding scientist like Francis Collins, who directed the Human Genome Project, could not get hired.  But is it true that being religious means you can't be in science?   Every AAAS survey for the last 70 years says over 40% of scientists are religious so it is unlikely all of their science is invalid.

    The AP report says some members of the search committee
    openly worried his Christian faith could conflict with his duties as a scientist, calling him "something close to a creationist" and "potentially evangelical."
    In the interests of clarity, and because some of the kookier atheists seek to muddy the waters by lumping all religious people together as anti-science and immature fundamentalists, a distinction has to be made.   Creationists, who believe a divine being created the universe, are much different than the anti-science Young Earth Creationists who instead rationalize arbitrarily that the world is 6,000 years old and all science evidence otherwise has been planted as a test of faith.

    Calling someone a creationist without the 'young Earth' part is silly - 98% of the world is religious and therefore 'creationist' so it's a meaningless claim.    But the 'Young Earth Creationists' are a different breed and are often opposed by both religious and secular education groups because it is a specific sectarian viewpoint they want taught in science classes.    The folks at U. of Kentucky seemed to believe hiring any religious person damaged their reputation - replace Christian with Muslim or Jew in this instance and you see how that might be a problem for the overwhelming majority of Americans much less a court of law.

    Should religion be a criterion in hiring at schools or any institutions that get taxpayer money?   I suppose it depends on the job - an evolutionary biologist who shows up on the job and declares he now won't work on evolutionary biology because of his religion might be a problem but this is a guy who knows how old the stars are, yet the atheists who declare his 'science outreach' work will be tainted by his religion might as well say the same thing about a scientist's gender, race or sexuality - it holds no water, since Gaskell has had a fine career as a scientist.
    "Unfortunately too many people get hung up on the idea that you have to be one extreme or the other," said Frank Manion, Gaskell's attorney who works for American Center for Law&Justice, which focuses on religious freedom cases. They say "you can't be a religious believer and somebody who accepts evolution, which is clearly not true. And Gaskell's a perfect example of that."
    Here's hoping the court finds that there were other legitimate factors that caused them to hire someone else.     It isn't ethically or intellectually superior for atheists to discriminate against qualified candidates because of religion.  If anything, people who claim 'reason' as their guide should be more immune from such thinking than others.


    Wow, that is something. I worry about such things because I'm very much like Gaskell - openly Christian and a scientist. I have never had any problem reconciling the two. But even in the south, the presumed bible belt, as a problem hiring a scientist who is Christian or any other faith, then the more progressive parts of the country might prove unwelcoming to folks like me.

    I'm curious. Where are the moderate atheists on this one?

    I worry more about Christian scientists promoting supernatural claims as science. This is how we got a "creationist museum".

    Gerhard Adam
    Perhaps we can agree that beliefs are simply that, and that when we advocate, publish, or present such beliefs more openly then we are laying claim to them as an advocate.

    Once we are into advocacy, then our views are fair game to a potential employer that may disagree with our position (especially if it may contradict an image or perception that is important to them).

    Every statement that I publish is subject to being scrutinized by someone that may disagree with me.  If that individual has the option to choose whether to do business with me or not, then that is a risk I take by publishing or making public statements.  If I don't want that kind of scrutiny, then it's best I keep my more controversial opinions to myself.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Gerhard Adam
    Why should scientists be exempt from scrutiny regarding their outside activities when no one else is?  The point is that his views became known because he publishes and presents these ideas of "Intelligent Design" and it certainly does raise a legitimate question as to whether he is the individual that should be the director of an observatory.

    Perhaps I'm just being cynical,  but I find this faux-Christian persecution complex a bit tedious.  If the reverse had occurred, then those same "Christians" would've felt justified in denying a job to an atheist.  Like it or not, his views do have the potential to impact the image of the university, and therefore those doing the hiring have a right to determine whether that is a chance they wish to take.  It isn't his beliefs that are being attacked, it's his public publishing and discussion of them that is the issue.

    He isn't being denied his right to be a Christian.  He's being denied the position because he insists on advancing his religious beliefs even into scientific areas for which he as little or no qualification (i.e. biology).  Every company or organization reserves the right to refuse the hiring of an individual that may be perceived as compromising that organization's image or objectives and this is no different. 

    Do you think a religious university should be compelled to hire atheists?  Or abortion clinics be compelled to hire "pro-lifers"?  Such beliefs have an impact and in this case, the university was right.
    Mundus vult decipi
    You used the term "militant atheist", which is beoming a common abuse of the term "militant". Militant means you will actually use violence. Its damn rare to actually find an atheist who is truly militant. Militant religious are all too common however, as the assasination of George Tiller evidences.

    Merriam-Webster's definition includes "aggressively active (as in a cause)", though I agree historically it referred to militants as nouns.   7 abortion providers killed since the federal legality of abortions is not really what I would call a militant rampage, but I get your point - I have no idea if any atheists have killed religious people in that period, though I also have no idea if any of the 7 abortion providers killed were atheists.    I do hope that 'religious people discriminate too' will not be the default rationalization moderate atheists use to shield people who are simply using science to cover their bigotry.   It seems like bigotry but, like I write above, I hope there were compelling reasons he was not hired that did not involve his church attendance.
    Gerhard Adam
    I don't think it's a case of "religious people discriminate too", but rather that ALL organizations discriminate if the potential employee holds and expresses views that are different than the image they want to maintain.

    If he were denied simply because he said he was a Christian then that would be a clear case of religious bigotry.  However, it is legitimate to question his views when he openly publishes and participates in presentations that present Intelligent Design as an alternative view (which is what he has done).  Therefore the university has a legitimate concern in considering whether his continued participation in such groups or publications may compromise their credibility by creating an aura of acceptability to that view because of his affiliation with the university. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Again, does that apply if he goes to a mosque or a synagogue or is a Republican?   None of those are likely to be 'the same' as the people on the hiring committee.   If the goal is simply to hire people 'like us' it isn't leading to better better people, it is making Kentucky more insular.    Nothing in this fellow's record suggested he was in any way anti-science, they seemed to dislike him because he goes to church.

    In 1960, the concern about John F. Kennedy was that, if he was elected, the president would be taking orders from the Pope rather than doing what was best for America.    I'd hoped that our culture had advanced since then, at least among academics, but this seems to be the same mentality.
    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry, but it isn't about where or if he attends church.  It's about publishing articles that openly discuss Intelligent Design as an alternative theory.  He may not be anti-astronomy, but by suggesting that Intelligent Design is a legitimate query in biology and creation, he's not exactly following the scientific method either.

    It doesn't matter if he attends church, or a mosque, or a synagogue, nor if he is a Republican.  However, it would matter if he were engaged in political publications regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (as an example).  It could matter if he was advocating certain Republican policy positions.  In and of themselves, they don't present a problem, but if one is in the position of advocacy, then such considerations will occur when seeking employment.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I'm somewhat dismayed that job applicants need to disclose their 'religion' since this is an invitation to bigotry, and should have nothing to do with qualification. If, however, a person's zeal affects the workplace, it can be grounds for dismissal, after warnings have been issued - otherwise, what is it to do with anything, unless you can get god to help with your workload....?

    Gerhard Adam
    I don't know if he disclosed his religion, but his writings made that position abundantly clear.
    Mundus vult decipi
    There is no such thing as a religious scientist. You can be a religious person doing scientific work, but not a scientist. It's like this: Suppose, just suppose, you had an atheist working in a church. So, just because they are working, doing bookkeeping, whatever - are they a christian? No, of course not. It's the same with a christian working in science. They're not a scientist.

    You have invalidated 40% of scientists in America with an arbitrary definition.   This is no different than saying a Republican can't be a scientist just because most scientists are Democrats.
    But is an atheist who works in a church a christian?

    To respond to your comments, I'm not invalidating any scientist. I'm saying 100% of scientists are scientists. That 40% you quote, are not scientists, therefore, no invalidation. Your analogy of Demo/Repub is WTF territory. Not even close to a correct example. What I *would* be saying, to use your (un)analogy, is that a Republican can't be a Democrat, because he is Republican.

    I'm not giving an arbitrary definition. I'm giving THE definition
    a : knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method b : such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena

    Faith: firm belief in something for which there is no proof

    Believing in talking snakes (Genesis), transubstantiation, miracles, supernatural, etc = not a scientist.
    The way I see it, is that true religionists should be proud not to be called a scientist. Science goes against their core beliefs.

    By the way, as long as you mentioned percentages, over 90% of the members of the National Academy of Science, the creme-de-la-creme of scientists, don't believe in talking snakes (religion). And if you look on the internets, this pisses the religious off to no end.

    Gerhard Adam
    Apparently, it was Gaskell's willingness to take ID seriously and his recognition that there are problems with evolutionary biology and the origins of life that were too much for the search committee at UK. In their view, unless Gaskell fully toed the line on materialist explanations of life, he was a "creationist," and as will be seen in the next post, they believed he therefore did not deserve the job at UK.

    Perhaps in a different political climate other than Kentucky is currently experiencing (e.g. the creationist museum, and now the Ark "Park"), it seems that there is a great deal more sensitivity to the issue of creationism than it might otherwise have warranted.

    I don't think there's any question that the decision to not hire Gaskell was a PR move with the concern of how Gaskell would be perceived in part of his "out-reach" role.  So while we might argue that their decision is incorrect, it isn't as simple as arguing religious discrimination.  It is clearly about creationism and Intelligent Design and whether the hiring committee felt that he could separate his beliefs sufficiently to not embarrass the university in the future. 
    Mundus vult decipi
    Let's look at this from another angle: the Roman Catholic one. The Vatican promotes science because it is the source of knowledge and power. It is the duty of every catholic to evangelize and scientists are not excused from this. The promotion of science is therefore also a push to implant Catholicism in the way science is done (just take a look at the Magisterium in His Dark Materials; fiction, for sure, but why does the Vatican hate those books so much?) It doesn't stop catholic scientists doing good science, but in the hierarchy of values being a Catholic is number one, being a scientist comes second. Religion could in many circumstances take a back seat to the science but only until we hit areas that are of moral concern to the Vatican. Then we see how one's religion makes a difference. Any group of fideists sitting on any board will push their own agenda.

    It is therefore perfectly rational for a group that does not yet have a religious majority to avoid going down that road by accident. After all, the faithful would do exactly the same while pretending it was all about professionalism. I mention Catholics because it is the sect I know best; I suspect other cults have a similar attitude.

    If any of you doubt the above scenario then read the Vatican's Osservatore Romano. Sadly, no link can be supplied as the newspaper is published at the same URL every day so that yesterday's news vanishes unless saved. Oh yes, it's also written only in Italian; the English weekly digest has most of the illuminating stories taken out.

    Most science articles that emanate from the Vatican make it abundantly clear that Rome has supreme authority on all matters moral and divine and that science should accept this as the natural order of things. Now, what if a scientist made this position crystal clear in an interview?
    There is nothing to indicate this man is a Catholic and if you are implying that John Kerry and any number of Democrat Senators - along with Pres. John F. Kennedy - are or were taking orders from the Pope, you are off your rocker.    Implying that Catholic scientists in Europe or the US or anywhere else are likewise framing science through religion means you don't know any scientists.  

    If you just saw this as an excuse to go off on Catholics, I guess that's fine, it just has nothing to do with whether or not this person was a victim of discrimination.
    Gerhard Adam
    I guess that would depend on how openly and seriously one took their religion.  We all know those that are affiliated with a particular religion, but don't really practice it.  However, I would be deeply suspicious of a president or congressman that openly embraced the church hierarchy.

    It's no different than the attitude that most Americans feel towards Islam, so that they are automatically considered fundamentalist radicals regardless of what they actually may believe.

    Religion of any stripe will present a dilemma when it is taken seriously and encounters a conflict with any other viewpoint.  There is simply no getting around it.  One perspective must prevail and it occurs frequently enough (especially in the medical profession surrounding birth control), that there been a number of cases where patients have been subjected to their doctor's religious beliefs over their professional ones.

    I don't believe scientists are any more objective than anyone else is when they are outside of their discipline, so it is a legitimate concern when part of that scientist's job will be "out-reach" to the general public.
    Mundus vult decipi
    I've never seen any evidence that Francis Collins did poor outreach because he went to church.    The supposed standard is how good someone will do the job and he was by far the most qualified and experienced and had a good track record.    As I said before, there may have been other reasons he did not get the job; if not, the hiring committee had better invent some because they are going to lose otherwise.    You can't discriminate based on race, creed or color and neither his race, his creed nor his color were going to impact his job performance, just like it has not impacted the performance of the tens of thousands of church-attending scientists who have to wonder about an icy chill in academia if this turns out to be discrimination based on religion.    Why not just make scientists fill out a form denying any religion if they can't do the job after being seen in a religious gathering?
    Gerhard Adam
    Sorry, but in science you can most definitely discriminate based upon creed, if it has the potential to impact the science.  Beliefs are not arbitrary and it is legitimate to question when someone's belief may be in conflict with the message and/or their work.

    In this case, it seems that it's as much political fall-out as concern over his beliefs.  Under any other circumstances I don't believe anything would've been said and he would've gotten the job.  However, Kentucky is a bit more sensitive because of other creationist/ID focus that has made this concern more volatile.  This is as much a consequence of the ID/Creationist crowd pushing their agenda, which is making those opposed much more sensitive to scrutinizing what someone says that may lend credibility to such efforts.

    I don't know why you keep mentioning Christianity or church attendance.  It is clear that the issue is solely based on the perception of his views regarding ID and creationism.  His personal faith is not the issue, and that is demonstrated by the fact that it doesn't appear that it has ever been mentioned.

    Frankly I'm a bit surprised at your position because it simply isn't true.  Michael Behe is by all rights a qualified Biochemist, and yet it would be stretching the bounds of credulity to suggest that his creed wouldn't interfere with his ability to be a good scientist.  Perhaps it would and perhaps not, but it can hardly be argued that Michael Behe would be considered a reasonable and "objective" choice to represent evolution.

    Many other scientists have come or been under scrutiny when it appears that their beliefs may compromise work or be perceived as pushing political agendas, so once again, I don't understand the claim regarding individual objectivity.  Science can be objective, but individuals are much more difficult to be sure of.
    Mundus vult decipi
    "Sorry, but in science you can most definitely discriminate based upon creed...."

    Not under US law you can't. Discrimination in hiring based purely on religious beliefs is illegal, and there's a real good reason for that. It has to do with history. Historically, when religious people start discriminating against each other (e.g. Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades) or atheists start discriminating against religious beliefs they don't like (Joseph Stalin, the current Chinese regime) people get hurt. How many Falun Gong people disappeared in China following an officially atheist government's crackdown on a religion they didn't like? That's what happens when you allow whoever is currently in power to decide what religious beliefs they will and will not accept among their subjects. That's why we have freedom to worship here in the US -- or freedom to refrain from worshipping, as you choose. And I think that's a beautiful thing.

    Now. Here's my thinking on this case. If U of K rejected the guy based on his ideas about intelligent design or Young Earth Creationism, that's fine. ID and YEC PURPORT to be scientific theories (they aren't, but they claim they are), so if U of K rejected him on that basis, they're rejecting a scientist because he persists in clinging to a discredited scientific theory even after it's been shown to be false. But if U of K decided not to hire him BECAUSE HE IS AN EVANGELICAL, that's religious discrimination, U of K is a government funded institution and they are breaking the law. And I'm just as unhappy about that as I would be about a government-funded religious group refusing to hire an atheist.

    If U of K wants to set their own rules, they need to stop taking government funding. Otherwise, they need to abide by the law just like everybody else. And if that makes you mad for some reason -- if you want to be able to discriminate in hiring, not on the basis of qualifications but because your prospective employees aren't atheists or Jews or Muslims or whatever you happen to be, then you need to leave the US and go find yourself a country that sanctions your particular brand of discrimination. Here in the US, we don't play that way.

    Gerhard Adam
    I didn't say anything about discriminating against religion, I said that you can definitely discriminate against a particular belief system that is against what you're trying to accomplish.  Hence if he believes in ID or Young Earth, his belief is subject to being discriminated against, regardless of all other considerations.

    Everything I've read on the topic indicates that the concern surfaced after his writings about evolution and ID were seen.  Therefore, unless there is something missing from the story, his religious beliefs were never the subject of scrutiny. 

    Also, I find your point about discrimination in hiring to be quaint, since it is NOT a violation of U.S. law unless you are accepting government money, therefore despite the claim of religious freedom, in practice, it isn't quite that clean.

    What is interesting is that the government can fund religious organizations, but the claim of separation of church/state allows them to behave in any discriminatory manner they choose.  So, they can enjoy tax-exempt status, while enjoying the protections of government (and still mount political campaigns against policies they dislike).  What a deal!
    Mundus vult decipi