Did astronomer’s faith cost him a job?

December 19, 2010

Eye on Faith and Science

Can a person be a good scientist while believing that God ultimately created the universe and had a hand in the creation of life on earth?

I along with plenty of other people believe this. Certainly a good number of scientists who profess a religious faith believe this. But some academic officials at the University of Kentucky seem to think otherwise.

When they found out an astronomer at the University of Nebraska who was applying for an observatory job at their school was an evangelical Christian, they decided to hire someone else.

Some are rightly characterizing this as an incident of religious discrimination. I think it’s also a case that smacks of bigotry, and it’s no surprise that the decision is being challenged in court.

Here’s the story, according to a Dec. 18 report in The New York Times:

Dr. C. Martin Gaskell was invited to the University of Kentucky to interview for a job running an observatory. Toward the end of the meeting, the chair of the physics and astronomy department asked him about his religious views. The chairman, according to Gaskell, felt Gaskell’s religious beliefs and his “expression of them would be a matter of concern.”

Another member of the department staff, Sally Shafer, had conducted Internet research on Gaskell and came across his notes for a lecture about how the Bible and modern astronomy relate to each other. Shafer wrote this to the chairman and another colleague:

“Clearly this man is complex and likely fascinating to talk with, but potentially evangelical. If we hire him, we should expect similar content to be posted on or directly linked from the department Web site.”

That Gaskell being “potentially evangelical” would pose a problem exposes a bigotry that should have no place at a university. Yes, there are some evangelicals that adhere to a brand of creationism that denies modern scientific views about how the universe began and how life and humans evolved on earth. But not all evangelicals believe the same thing, and Gaskell shouldn’t be labeled unfairly. He told The New York Times, for example, that he was not a creationist and did not deny the theory of evolution.

I read the online handout for his Bible and astronomy lecture. After a short introduction, he lists quotes about science and religion from famous scientists and philosophers. He goes on to outline different interpretations of the Book of Genesis, and then he examines Genesis in light of modern astronomy.

At times, I think he reaches too far in trying to make connections and correlations between the findings of contemporary science and what Genesis says. But he does offer some food for thought and — within the context of this presentation — I think he keeps clear what science does and does not support.

It’s difficult to find one passage that sums up Gaskell’s views, but this one offers some key insights:

“The main controversy has been between people at the two extremes (young earth creationists and humanistic evolutionists). ‘Creationists’ attack the science of ‘evolutionists.’ I believe that this sort of attack is very bad both scientifically and theologically. The ‘scientific’ explanations offered by ‘creationists’ are mostly very poor science and I believe this sort of thing actually hinders some (many?) scientists becoming Christians. It is true that there are significant scientific problems in evolutionary theory (a good thing or else many biologists and geologists would be out of a job) and that these problems are bigger than is usually made out in introductory geology/biology courses, but the real problem with humanistic evolution is in the unwarranted atheistic assumptions and extrapolations. It is the latter that ‘creationists’ should really be attacking . . .”

This doesn’t strike me as an extreme view, much less one that should be excluded at a university. Most people would agree that creationism is guilty of “poor science.” Evolutionary theory is good science, but it doesn’t answer every question out there, and when it denies the possibility of God, it oversteps the bounds of science entirely.

Gaskell notes there are other views that fall on a spectrum between these “two extremes.” We Catholics, for example, would fall somewhere along the spectrum: While modern astronomy and evolutionary theory help explain the origins and workings of the natural world, we believe that God had — and continues to have — a working role in our lives and the life of the universe. Science helps us understand the former, while our faith instructs us about the latter. (One wonders if the staffers who had trouble with Gaskell would have trouble with someone who is “potentially Catholic.”)

Gaskell appears interested in encouraging the dialogue between faith and science — an important effort at a time when religion is often falsely perceived as being anti-science and aggressive atheism is gaining a foothold. This is the kind of dialogue that should be encouraged on a university campus as long as it keeps the boundaries clear about what science can and cannot tell us, and likewise what religion can and cannot tell us.

Unfortunately, for now, Gaskell’s perspective is getting more airing in a lawsuit instead of its proper place in an academic setting.

About Joe Towalski

Editor of The Catholic Spirit, husband, dad, baseball fan(atic), astronomy buff. Follow me on Twitter @towalskij

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