Evolving Thoughts

Evolution, culture, philosophy and chocolate! John Wilkins' continuing struggle to come to terms with impermanence... "Humanus sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto" - Terence

Thursday, December 08, 2005

A whispering campaign, a beating, and a rumour

Here's a strange series of events. An academic by the name of Paul Mirecki, chair of religious studies at Kansas University (yes, that Kansas, Dorothy), decided to teach Intelligent Design... as mythology. In religious studies.

Now "mythology" means something like "socially shared organising story" in the social sciences - it is not automatically a falsehood (the myth that unites Australians is the long battle at Gallipoli in Turkey in the First World War. A defeat, it acts to identify Australia - then a young nation - as a nation of warriors and good sports. OK, that may be false). But this charitable interpretation was defeated by an email that Mirecki sent out to a student group, SOMA (The Society of Open-Minded Atheists and Agnostics), in which he said that this course would be "a nice slap in their big fat face" for the "fundies". SOMA is a group of skeptics and atheists, which in Kansas is equivalent to saying, really, really, brave people.

The outcry that followed was due to the fact that one of the local conservatives, a John Altevogt, was monitoring this private discussion group, and when the email was sent, passed it onto the media, who whipped up a great frenzy. Mirecki was forced to issue an apology, cancel the class, and most recently, step down from the chair of the department. Rumor has it he may be going through a very bad time personally.

The responses were interesting. One of the conservative politicians of that state threatened to remove funding from the department (no doubt the reason why he stepped down). She also said that Mirecki, who has a doctorate in theology from Harvard, hates Christians. Of course he does. That's why he is a Christian himself... Sen. Kay O'Connor, Republican of course, says that there needs to be a standard in the US that prohibits criticism of Christianity... here comes The Handmaid's Tale.

Anyway, the latest development apart from the resignation, is that Mirecki was assaulted, he alleges, by two thugs who mentioned this furore before they beat him up outside town. I find some aspects of this event worrisome, and I do not think it is reason to attack fundamentalism per se on this basis. While religious fanatics are perfectly capable of using violence against those they perceive as a threat, there may be other factors at work here: road rage, an argument while drinking, and so forth. The assault is not justified (and many fundamentalists seem to recognise this) in any circumstances, but the real issues here are these.

1. ID is mythology. It is not only not science, but it fulfils one of the major functions of a mythos - to organise and unify a community against outsiders. Mirecki was right to teach it that way, and right to put it in religious studies, for there is no other motivation or feature of ID than the religious.

2. Mirecki's email was obnoxious, but in no way unjustified or immoral or contrary to decent ethical standards. Religious people make much worse comments about "godless atheists" every day, and in America, they (and he) have that right constitutionally. The apology ought to have been enough to settle this, in a civilised nation. And it was in a private forum. He didn't broadcast it to the nation, Altevogt did. Is it a surprise that Mirecki thinks fundamentalists are often stupid bastards? I do, and many others, a lot of whom are Christians of a more reasonable kind, also do. So what is at issue? That he said to those he had a reasonable expectation shared those values what he thought? Bad man! Bad bad man!

3. Mirecki has academic freedom, or ought to, to teach what he wants without interference from lobby groups or the majority. His peers - those who are professionals in his discipline - are the ones who are fit to judge his actions; not some politician or religious opponent. Threatening the freedom of academics by withholding funding is the reason why universities got out from under church control in the first place.

4. We who support science need not therefore support every action made by fellow supporters. There is room for differences, so long as nobody gets hurt. Mirecki's ill-advised email was trivial. I might not have done it (although I've been known to lose my cool at the incessant stupidities of fundamentalists once or twice), but his doing it is perhaps bad manners. It doesn't affect the facts.

5. There is no "persecution" of Christians going on in America. Christians form something like 90% of the population - they control or affect public life in every way. What is going on there, in this case as in others, is that they oppose any dissent from what they think the world ought to be like. They are the persecutors, not Mirecki, not SOMA. Altevogt, O'Connor and their ilk are the ones who are being anti-American.

And they will win so long as the religious right controls the social instruments of government, media, and law.