December 11, 2005

Flying Spaghetti Monster Under Attack

I have been following with some interest the developing controversy over the story of Professor Paul Mirecki. Prof. Mirecki teaches at the University of Kansas as a religious studies professor. He had been the chairman of the religious studies department until recent events overtook him.

In response to recent decisions by the Kansas Board of Education to require elementary and high school students to listen to statements that evolution is only a theory, that it does not explain all of the evidence in the fossil record, that there are other theories of the creation of species aside from evolution, and that students should feel encouraged to explore all of the alternatives. Mirecki then proposed to teach a class called "Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies." In his class, he proposed to explain why intelligent design, creationism, and other theories of human origin which involve intervention by an outside source are not good science and should not be considered on an equal footing with evolution.

All well and good, except that an e-mail surfaced in which Mirecki wrote to a colleague about how the course would anger the "fundies" and bragged that his class would be "nice slap in their big fat face." While he subsequently apologized for those remarks, they nevertheless demonstrate a flippant disrespect for those who have religous beliefs.

The University of Kansas' response was to force Mirecki to resign as department chair and to cancel the class. He retains his teaching position. Nevertheless, he claims his academic freedom (which is protected by the First Amendment) has been abridged by the University's actions.

More interestingly, earlier this week, he was confronted by two men on a country road near Lawrence (where U of K is located, and presumably near where he lives). The men made reference to his proposed class and beat him up. CNN ran this picture from an AP photography of Mirecki showing two nice black eyes shortly after the attack. Police are investigating but I rather doubt much will turn up.

So there's lots of intolerance to go around. Mirecki is intolerant of those holding religious views of creation. At least two creationists are intolerant enough of his anti-creationist views to resort to violence in order to enforce their world view. The University is intolerant of Mirecki enough to strip of him everything they can except his tenure (which they're smart enough to leave alone).

Now, it seems to me that Prof. Mirecki is in the right. He does have a right to teach his classes in the manner that he sees fit and to express particular academic points of view. Condemnation of non-scientific attacks on the scientific method is a defensible academic position. Public disapproval of the Kansas Board of Education's appalling decisions is within his First Amendment rights. He also certainly has the right to not be beaten up for trying to exercise that academic freedom. In fairness to serious proponents of intelligent design, I am certain that they are equally appalled at seeing this man physically attacked for his role in the controversy.

What Mirecki is guilty of is poor taste and the bitter consequences of instigating a fight. Particularly as a religious studies professor, he should know better than to belittle the beliefs of others. I can see the University's administration wanting to strip him of the chairmanship of the department in light of that demonstration of bad judgment and intolerance. I also am not sure exactly what he will recover in a legal action against the University; at most, the right to teach his proposed class seems to be at stake. The University can moot the lawsuit by scheduling the class. But he does not have a right to be the department chair -- if Kansas works like most universities, that is a rotating position that is voted upon by the members of that department annually or every other year. He must earn the respect of his peers to hold the chairmanship of his department, and it seems that he has lost that. No lawsuit will bring that back. The University hasn't taken anything else from him.

As martyrs for the cause of promoting scientific theory go, he's not much. His own intemperate words taint him and his in-your-face tactics make him kind of an amibugous hero. He's right to point out that thoughtful religionists and people of faith should recongize that intelligent design and creationism are not science and should not be presented as the equals of science, and that there are consequences for doing so which are more material and real than an esoteric debate about the origins of humanity. But he's wrong for assuming that all people of faith reject science and the results of the scientific method. Plenty of people of faith accept evolution as the mechanism used by God to enact the creation of man, and do not need to resort to deus ex machina reasoning to reconcile themselves with existing scientific theories and readily-verifiable evidence. And plenty of people who do not share a particular, or any, religious faith somehow find a way to be respectful of those who do while still not compromising their own assertions.

1 comment:

Salsola said...

I disagree with your comment that there are any "serious proponents of intelligent design."

Anyone who claims that there is logical cohesion behind Intelligent Design simply has chosen to ignore reality.

For example, intelligent design proponents claim that the world is so complex that it can't be explained by selection. However, if God made the world, why is it so complex? Complex systems don't work as well as simple systems - more things to go wrong. Therefore, why would God design a less robust system?