US associate professor challenged for ‘promoting religious beliefs’

By Colleen Flaherty, for Inside Higher Ed

December 1, 2014

Lecturing for a week about how “evolution could not have happened”. Offering extra credit for students to watch the film God’s Not Dead. Showing religious bias in exam questions. Student reviews saying he’ll try to “convert you”.

Those charges, among others, make up a complaint filed recently by two First Amendment watchdog groups against T. Emerson McMullen, an associate professor of history at Georgia Southern University. The institution says it’s now investigating the professor for allegedly using his classroom at the public university to promote his anti-evolution Christian beliefs.

“We understand that as a historian, particularly a historian focused on science, McMullen could legitimately discuss the development of scientific ideas,” reads a letter sent to Georgia Southern from the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. “He could even legitimately discuss religious doctrines masquerading as science, such as young earth creationism and intelligent design.”

However, the letter continues, “it appears that McMullen does not present these as religious ideas lacking scientific merit. Instead, McMullen presents these religious beliefs as scientific fact. In short, McMullen appears to use at least some of his class to preach religion instead of teach history.”

The First Amendment watchdog foundations lay out numerous allegations of proselytizing, including that – as reported by one original complainant – McMullen lectured for more than a week about “how evolution could not have happened.” The groups also reference several student reviews on saying that McMullen’s a “huge religious nut” who spends “a lot” of time talking about Darwinism, that he “tried to push his outdated views on the class” and that his extra-credit assignments were “trying to convert you”.

McMullen, who teaches courses on the history of science and technology, also allegedly offered his students extra credit last semester to see the film God’s Not Dead, a pro-Christian drama about a college student who must prove the existence of God to his philosophy professor.

The foundations in their letter also accuse McMullen of showing bias toward Christianity in his essay questions for students.

On his private webpage, he has a lengthy piece called “How I Reasoned from Skepticism to Christianity”. In it, McMullen offers an account of his own conversion to Christianity.

The First Amendment watchdog foundations ask that the university investigate the allegations and “require McMullen to stop preaching to his students”.

Maura Copeland, Georgia Southern’s vice-president for legal affairs, said in an emailed statement that the university had “received a letter containing allegations of inappropriate course content”, and that it “will investigate and respond appropriately”.

She added: “At this point, the university would be unable to confirm or deny the validity of the allegations, nor would we be able to predict the outcome of the investigation.”

McMullen did not respond to a request for comment. In an interview with the Statesboro-Herald, he denied trying to convert his students or preaching creationism, but also confirmed his disbelief in evolution.

“In some of my classes, like for instance, World History I, we’re doing Jainism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism and then Christianity, and then later Islam, and also, I might add Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism,” he told the newspaper. But, he said, “I don’t buy that we descended from a common ancestor…I don’t accept that as a scientist. I was an agnostic, thought science had the answers and, investigating science, I realized science didn’t have all of the answers, including descent from a common ancestor, and then came to believe in God.”

McMullen’s PhD is in the history and philosophy of science, he also has a master’s of science in engineering administration.

A university spokeswoman said she did not know if McMullen was teaching during the investigation, and that no one from the university’s legal affairs team was able to answer that question until after the Thanksgiving holiday.

Stephen P. Vives, chair of the university’s biology department, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation. But the department’s webpage says it “recognizes the foundational importance of evolutionary theory to all of modern biology, and is in full agreement with the Society for the Study of Evolution’s statements on evolution and on the teaching of evolution”.

Jerry Coyne, a professor of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago, runs a blog called Why Evolution Is True and reviewed some of the allegations and evidence against McMullen for the Freedom from Religion and Richard Dawkins foundations. He’s quoted in their letter as saying that “virtually everything [McMullen] says about evolution is dead wrong. He’s teaching lies to students and pushing a religious viewpoint.”

In an interview, Coyne said that McMullen appeared to be doing far more proselytizing in his classes than others who have been investigated and reprimanded following such allegations in recent years. Eric Hedin, an assistant professor of astronomy and physics at Ball State University who was investigated last year for proselytizing in a class called “Boundaries of Science”, for example, asked students to read intelligent design proponents.

McMullen, on the other hand, allegedly was “giving students credit for reading and analyzing articles about his own religious beliefs”, Coyne said. “This is just the worst, most embarrassing kind of creationism.”

Coyne said he was confident that the university would find McMullen in violation of the First Amendment, which dictates the separation of church and state. Coyne, noted, however, that the teaching of creationism at the college and university level has never been legally tested.

John West, vice-president of the Discovery Institute, which promotes the instruction of intelligent design and has defended Hedin, said the organization hasn’t been involved in McMullen’s case and so didn’t want to comment on specifics.

“However, I can say that we don’t support state university professors proselytizing for either religion or atheism in their classes,” West said via email.

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